Nor­folk Black tur­keys

Deb­bie Kings­ley talks to or­ganic farmer Rosie Yells who breeds Nor­folk Black tur­keys

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Ifirst met Rosie Yells sev­eral years ago when buy­ing some of her won­der­ful Nor­folk Black turkey poults to rear for Christ­mas. The young­sters were just off heat at a month old, and charm­ing in char­ac­ter and looks, quite un­like other birds I had reared. I asked her to share her love of this in­trigu­ing and de­li­cious breed.

“I am Rosie and my hus­band is Paul – to­gether we run our farm in West Devon. It is 177 acres of small­ish fields, mostly south fac­ing, look­ing to­wards Dart­moor. At first, back in 1988, we rented the farm from my par­ents. Ini­tially there was so much that needed at­ten­tion – the build­ings, the hedges, the fenc­ing, the farm­house, not to men­tion the fact that there was no live­stock and no machin­ery. So, in 29 years, lots has hap­pened and we have also been lucky enough to bring up our three chil­dren in this lovely place.

“We keep suck­ler cows, sheep and tur­keys; we grow one field of ce­re­als each year; we have an ap­ple or­chard and we har­vest lots of fire­wood, so it is not a dull life!

“Eigh­teen years ago we made the de­ci­sion to go into or­ganic con­ver­sion. At that stage ‘car­bon neu­tral’ wasn’t re­ally main­stream lan­guage but we were strug­gling to see the point of ap­ply­ing ar­ti­fi­cial fer­tiliser that was man­u­fac­tured us­ing en­ergy from fos­sil fu­els. Not us­ing fer­tiliser was, of course, only one of the many changes we made, but we have learnt lots along the way and without doubt the or­ganic route has been a good one for us. It was the or­ganic stan­dards that re­ally got us go­ing with tur­keys. The first year we only wanted to be sure of a good Christ­mas din­ner for our­selves, and the fol­low­ing year we thought that per­haps a few other peo­ple might also want an or­ganic turkey. This did in­deed prove to be the case, and we are now for­tu­nate to en­joy sup­port from many loyal cus­tomers at Christ­mas. This has pro­vided huge en­cour­age­ment to de­velop the en­ter­prise a lit­tle bit each year. The most in­ter­est­ing change was when the or­ganic stan­dards re­quired us to source our day-old tur­keys from an or­ganic par­ent flock. Ba­si­cally, there were no or­ganic par­ent turkey flocks, so in­stead of get­ting a dero­ga­tion (an agreed re­lax­ation of their stan­dards from the Soil As­so­ci­a­tion), we did the ob­vi­ous thing and tried to breed our own tur­keys. We had our fail­ures, mostly be­cause we didn’t use ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion (AI) which is es­sen­tial for the faster grow­ing, mod­ern strains of turkey. We weren’t par­tic­u­larly keen to learn how to do AI, so when we came across Nor­folk Black tur­keys be­ing bred suc­cess­fully and nat­u­rally, the choice was made.

“James Gra­ham of Peele’s tur­keys in Nor­folk in­tro­duced us to Nor­folk Black tur­keys and it was his grand­fa­ther in the 1950s who res­cued the breed from very low num­bers, so we are very grate­ful.

“What we didn’t ap­pre­ci­ate when we had our first Nor­folk Blacks was just how good the eat­ing qual­ity was. They are slow grow­ing so the tex­ture of the meat is good and suc­cu­lent. The flavour is also ex­cel­lent and this of­ten sur­prises peo­ple if they haven’t tried this kind of turkey be­fore. Of course, to achieve this, they do need a long grow­ing sea­son. This is great for the tur­keys but it does mean more work for the per­son look­ing af­ter them. How­ever, they are fas­ci­nat­ing crea­tures and most peo­ple find they get a lot of sat­is­fac­tion from keep­ing them.

Keys to suc­cess

“The tur­keys en­joy be­ing free-range and will eat lots of grass as well as docks, sting­ing net­tles and other green stuff. Wind­fall ap­ples, black­ber­ries, rose­hips, hawthorn berries and sloes are also favourites, so it is a plea­sure to see them for­ag­ing around the farm. In the spring each stag keeps com­pany with his own group of hens in a large grassy pen of their own. The first eggs are usu­ally laid in March and (with the help of the in­cu­ba­tor) we ex­pect the first tur­keys to hatch at the end of April. That is al­ways when the hard work be­gins, rear­ing the young birds to meat weight. Our tur­keys have a pretty good life – they fly, they perch and they love to come out in the morn­ings. They live free-range in our or­chard and sur­round­ing fields and are painstak­ingly put to bed each night -– un­like chick­ens, tur­keys don’t take them­selves in­doors to roost.

“We have found that suc­cess with free-range de­pends on keep­ing one or two things in mind. Young tur­keys should not be kept with other poul­try and they should be kept in an area where there have been no other poul­try or tur­keys for the pre­vi­ous 12 months. The rea­son for this is be­cause tur­keys are par­tic­u­larly sus­cep­ti­ble to black­head, a dis­ease of poul­try that is caused by a pro­to­zoan with a life cy­cle be­tween earth­worms and in­testi­nal worms. So our rule is that tur­keys should al­ways go onto ground that is clean from pre­vi­ous poul­try. Like this we are able to avoid black­head and we also find that we avoid in­testi­nal worm prob­lems. The other golden rule is to al­ways shut the tur­keys into their house at night – don’t ever for­get or the fox will find you out!

“All in all tur­keys are very re­ward­ing birds to keep and it is easy to get car­ried away think­ing about the plea­sure of keep­ing them. How­ever, there was one thing we for­got when we had our first tur­keys. We as­sumed some­one else would slaugh­ter and evis­cer­ate them, but this did not hap­pen be­cause, as we found out, every­one else is too busy just be­fore Christ­mas. In hind­sight, this was a great thing be­cause we had to learn how to do this our­selves and now we pride our­selves in slaugh­ter­ing and pre­par­ing our tur­keys in the best way pos­si­ble. We are pleased that they don’t have to travel any­where and the whole process takes place here on our farm.

“In ad­di­tion to rear­ing our own tur­keys we do sell day-old and off-heat birds in late spring and sum­mer. How­ever, they do come with a health warn­ing – you just may get ad­dicted!”

MORE: To find out more about Rosie and Paul Yells and their tur­keys, see www. won­na­cot­t­farm.co.uk ALSO: Turkey Club UK https://www. turk­ey­club.org.uk SOIL AS­SO­CI­A­TION https://www. soilas­so­ci­a­tion.org PEELE’S TUR­KEYS https://www.pee­les-

black­turkeys.co.uk All in all, tur­keys are very re­ward­ing birds to keep

Rosie Yells and turkey poults

Rosie’s tur­keys have a good life

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