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Don’t buy frozen turkeys for Christmas, say British producers of free range birds

<span>Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Fears over bird flu and the cost of living crisis could impact free-range turkey sales, farmers have warned, as growing numbers turn to supermarkets for frozen birds this Christmas.

After months of worry for their flocks, which since last month have to be housed indoors, destroying livelihoods across the country, turkey farmers are facing significant pressure this holiday season.

Farmers said they have been “living on a knife edge” for fear of their birds being infected and culled. Now, those who have made it through to December with their flocks intact face additional hurdles if they have not already found buyers.

It comes after the British Poultry Council warned of a “big, big shortage” of British free-range turkeys this year.

Richard Griffiths, its chief executive, told MPs on the environment, food and rural affairs select committee last week: “The usual amount of free-range birds grown for Christmas is around 1.2 to 1.3m. We have seen around 600,000 of those free-range birds being directly affected.”

Meanwhile, sales of frozen turkeys are understood to have risen, reportedly doubling in October.

Paul White, a turkey farmer near Colne in Lancashire, said such reports have put people off seeking to buy from small-scale turkey producers. His business, Paul’s Turkeys, had “lots of turkeys left” because people have been buying frozen turkeys to make sure they don’t go without.

Frozen turkey in a supermarket display cabinet.
Frozen turkey in a supermarket display cabinet. Sales reportedly doubled in October. Photograph: Justin Kase/Alamy

“The coverage of the ‘shortage’ has only further impacted us,” he wrote on Facebook. “It’s scared the public, and frozen turkey sales have risen dramatically because people want to make sure they’ve got a turkey in their freezer for Christmas. It being British-reared, or its welfare, has mattered less.”

He added: “That means that people like us have lots of turkeys left. The main impact of the free-range shortage is to supermarkets and large-scale suppliers, and people just want to make sure they’ve got a bird in their freezer. We’re starting to really worry. There is no shortage here.”

Paul Kelly, of KellyBronze in Danbury, Essex, which has plucked and hung all of its 34,000 birds, said sales of premium turkeys, which cost between £80 and £130 depending on size – are more likely to be impacted by the cost of living crisis.

His Christmas had been “business as normal” but smaller farms that rear turkeys without knowing who they are going to sell to could face difficulty. “Bird flu isn’t the issue,” he said. “It’s the economic environment that’s the issue. Budgets are squeezed this Christmas.”

One turkey farm in south-east England said people were still buying turkeys but it was clear that customers were “nervous”. “Is it because of bird flu or the credit crunch? I don’t know,” they said.

Mike Lambert of Starveall Turkeys in Buckinghamshire said it was a “critical time” for the poultry industry, with bird flu posing a huge risk to the future of free range. A friend had to cull his 12,000-head flock, he added. “It’s devastating farms up and down the country, especially in Norfolk.”

James Chamings, who runs Pale Farm in Exeter, which has 600 turkeys, said it had been a “pretty worrying” year but he had increased sales by attracting business from butchers whose usual suppliers had been affected.

Waitrose said turkey pre-orders were up by 7% on last year. Meanwhile, demand for other festive birds, such as duck, pheasant and partridge, has risen by 23%.

The NFU poultry board chair, James Mottershead, said: “The British poultry sector has experienced an unprecedented year with record levels of avian influenza. Turkey producers are doing all they can to protect the health and welfare of their birds at this difficult time, especially as we approach Christmas.

“As avian influenza persists, vigilance is key, and maintaining stringent biosecurity measures is vital for all bird-keepers, whether a professional poultry farmer or someone who keeps a small number of hens in their garden.”