A turkey is for life, not just for Christmas

In a rare reversal of fortune, turkeys are getting a Christmas present. Britain’s 10 turkey breeds are to be placed on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust‘s (RBST) watchlist, and the charity plans to create a watchlist for native breeds of ducks and geese as well next year. The idea is to promote the pure-bred turkey as a useful fowl for smallholders, and not just a bird to rear for Christmas. ‘Until now, we’ve only had certain breeds of chickens on the watchlist, but we’ve realised that we need to keep a record of other pure-bred fowl for genetic purposes,’ says the RBST’s conservation officer, Clare Barber. ‘We don’t know actual numbers of the different breeds, as that’s impossible to gauge with fowl, but we are getting anecdotal evidence that certain breeds are hard to source and that the numbers turning up at poultry shows are low.’

Most commercially reared turkeys are hybrids and don’t mate naturally, so are produced by artificial insemination. They also need 14 hours of daylight to lay eggs, which is why it’s better to plan to have a turkey from May, rather than July or August, as with commercial turkeys. Their attractively speckled eggs are larger than a chicken’s but not as rich as a duck’s, and may be found in some branches of Waitrose. ‘I used to keep them myself, which people thought was odd, but they’re fun to have around and great characters,’ says Miss Barber, who has even trained turkeys to recognise coloured lights for research. ‘People think they’re thick, but you just have to be patient.’ COUNTRY LIFE columnist Carla Carlisle is also fond of her Norfolk Black turkeys, which featured in the report on her garden at Wyken Fen (November 23): ‘You should not underestimate the intelligence of birds,’ she says.