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