Happy Christmas, turkey. It's your last

Tis a noble bird that graces the nation's dinner plates. Mary Braid and Danny Penman tell the story

Once sacred, now stuffed

Frozen stiff and tightly packaged, the British turkey is selling in supermarkets this week for as little as 29p a pound. It seems an ignominious fate for a noble bird whose ancestors date back at least 2.5 million years.The Aztecs were the first to domesticate wild turkeys, but their standing in the ancient society was both sacred and sacrificial - something of a mixed blessing. The North American Indians took a more pragmatic approach, hunting turkeys for food and head-dress feathers. They believed the bird now served up to millions of families on Christmas Day represented self-sacrifice and caring for others.

The turkey first made its way to Britain in the late16th century via Spain. It became established as a special dish for the rich - and quickly made its way into literature - Shakespeare refers to turkeys in Twelfth Night and Henry V. Henry VIII is thought to have been among the first aristocrats to forsake swan, peacock and even the magnificent boar's head in favour of the new arrival, which took the name of the turkey-cock, formerly used for the guinea fowl which hailed from Turkey. Within 12 years of its arrival, the first steps to mass consumption had begun with its price being halved to three shillings.

The birds were certainly one of the great spectacles of the time. Norfolk, now home to millions of Bernard Matthews's intensively reared turkeys, was already a main breeding area in the 17th century. The creatures have never had it easy. They were marched - in small leather boots or their claws tar-coated - hundreds of miles to London for market. The turkey drive's journey time was three months.

By the 17th century the turkey was the traditional food for Thanksgiving in North America. The Victorians introduced turkey as part of the British Christmas, along with Christmas trees and crackers. But goose was still the most popular - as in the rhyme "Christmas is coming, The goose is getting fat."

Until the 1960s the turkey still competed with the goose, chicken and roast beef for its place at the centre of the Christmas table. Before the war it was still largely a luxury dish. But the arrival of intensive farming methods and more widely available freezing facilities brought a revolution.

Will 'bootiful' burgers replace beef?

Mad cow disease has been a gift to the British turkey industry. Consumers are giving up beef in their droves - sales are currently down by about a quarter - and poultry producers are cashing in with new ranges of turkey products.

The market for whole turkeys is in decline - the bird is no longer seen as a luxury and in most people's minds it is associated solely with Christmas lunch. After years of battling, the industry has refocused its marketing away from trying to interest consumers in whole turkeys as a year-round meal and begun to develop new products from the flesh.

Less than a third of the 35 million birds slaughtered each year are now eaten during Christmas. Most of the rest get turned into turkey products and portions for consumption throughout the year. We have come a long way since Bernard Matthews introduced television audiences to his "bootiful" turkey roll.

Since then turkey burgers, breast strips, diced thighs and new cuts of meat for barbecues have all been designed to appeal to those fancying a change from beef, lamb, pork and chicken. To further increase consumption, producers are working with the rest of the food industry to create sauces and recipes for turkey.

While not overtly knocking their main rival, the turkey image-makers are working at replacing beef in as many recipes as possible in the public imagination. Turkey flesh, says Amanda Williams, spokeswoman for Sun Valley Poultry, tastes good in curries and casseroles. Turkey mince is being used to replace beef in some school meals.

The intensively reared meat is cheap and it does not have an image problem. It is low in fat, high in protein and, according to the producers, few diseases lurk in the wings to infect man.

The industry's strategy seems to be working. Turkey is the fastest growing sector of the meat trade and is almost as big as the lamb business. Since 1980 turkey production has increased from 123,000 to 182,000 tonnes. And mainly thanks to the economies of scale of factory farming, the cost of turkey is rising much less than the rate of inflation.

While the intensively produced birds are so cheap, free-range turkey is unlikely to develop into anything other than a niche market. Supermarkets are selling intensively reared whole birds of 10lb weight for about pounds 3 frozen or pounds 10 fresh. A free-range bird of the same weight costs about pounds 15. Small fluctuations in price can also hit the farmer hard, because of wafer-thin margins.

Free as a bird? Not on the factory farm

Accept no substitute

Life for the average turkey is nasty, brutish and - at somewhere between nine and 21 weeks - short.

Turkey farmers only began large-scale intensive rearing in the Seventies, some 20 years after chicken producers, but by this year more than 90 per cent of the 35 million birds slaughtered in Britain were reared in factory farms.

The turkey business is relatively small, employing 7,000 compared with the 50,000 in the chicken trade. But the regime is depressingly familiar: the birds are kept in flocks of up to 25,000 in large, windowless sheds with automatic feeding, watering and ventilation, and minimal human contact. The Ministry of Agriculture recommends a maximum of four to eight turkeys per square metre in the sheds. But since there are no laws governing the welfare of poultry, farmers are free to optimise production by packing in the birds as densely as possible.

To reduce aggression among the birds, most producers keep the sheds in near darkness. Some slice off the birds' beaks, to prevent them from damaging each other during fights.

The birds have been bred selectively to grow as fast and as big as possible. Only those with the desired characteristics are used for breeding. Over the generations, the breeders have produced birds with big fleshy breasts that reach their slaughtering weight on an increasingly short timescale. Inevitably, many turkeys grow so fast that their legs cannot support their weight.

Those birds used for breeding suffer particularly from leg deformities and the enlarged breast of the males means they cannot mate naturally. So breeders masturbate the birds to collect semen with which they artificially inseminate the females.

Free-range turkeys generally have a better time of it. Although their housing is basic, they have access to the outdoors with natural light, green foods and some dirt to scratch around in.

If they are reared under the Soil Association's Organic label, then they will not be doped with "feed antibiotics", which help the birds digest and absorb their food better. "Traditional Farm Fresh" is another commonly used label, but the birds are often reared in intensive systems.

The British love of the big bird at Christmas shows few signs of waning. Turkey has dominated the Christmas market for at least a decade and consumption continues to rise. Competing supermarkets are practically giving the birds away this month to attract customers.

Much is made of the alternatives to Britain's festive fare. But duck, goose, pheasant, salmon and vegetarian nut roast - despite the best efforts of their industries - have not even ruffled King Turkey's feathers. Duck producers claim that their share of the Christmas market has gradually increased in recent years but are shy of providing figures. The goose - before turkey's reign, the British Christmas favourite, and still popular in France and Germany - is newly fashionable, after suffering near annihilation just a decade ago. Sales of the bird - linked naturally through breeding and hatching to the Christmas season - have increased fourfold to about 600,000.

Those who favour goose must deal with the vagaries of nature. For 1995 has brought a shortage of geese - the long, hot summer made ganders lethargic and fewer eggs were hatched. Meanwhile, meat producers wrestle with the fallout from BSE. The Meat and Livestock Commission claims that until this year the Christmas joint was more than holding its own, but beef sales are down 15 per cent on this time last year.

And what of the trendy and adventurous gastronomes and the elite band of restaurants and country houses that serve them? At Gidleigh Park country house in Devon, the proprietor, Paul Henderson, says that roast turkey - free range, of course - complete with sage and onion, will be one of the main course choices on the Christmas Day menu, though venison and turbot are also offered. At Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, breast of turkey filled with chestnuts and walnuts stands alongside duckling and turbot.

"In the past five years we have tried roast goose and suckling pig, but they just never got ordered," said Mr Henderson. "We have turkey because it is what our clients expect at Christmas."

Of course, adventurous Britons wanting a change could follow the example of the Swedes who eat boiled ham on Christmas Day, with a salad of herring, beetroot and potato. Or the Australians who barbeque exotic fish and prawns.

Fowl facts, turkey nuggets and poultry trimmings

l A wild turkey can fly at 50mph.

l In 1937 at Southfleet in Kent, a certain Mrs Cuckoo successfully bred a churkey. Its father was a turkey, its mother was a chicken.

l What do you call a male turkey? A gobbler.

l What do you call a gathering of turkeys? A rafter.

l What do the Turks call a turkey? An "American bird".

l Turkeys are said to grow fatter and more contented when they see the world in pink; breeders are advised to fit them with pink-tinted lenses.

l During rainstorms, turkeys have a habit of looking upwards with their mouths open. Many drown.

l The nest of the Australian bush turkey can weigh up to five tons.

l Creek Indians worshipped the turkey at their New Fire Festival with a turkey dance - original inspiration for the "Birdie Song"?

l Shakespeare's greatest turkey line: "God's body, the turkeys in my pannier are quite starved."(Henry IV, Part I, Act II, scene ii, the first Carrier). Unfortunately for the poet, the action takes place a century before the first turkeys came to Europe.

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