Notebook: All trussed up with only one place to go: Turkeys smother each other at the sight of a balloon and the hens get clawed to bits during mating. Still, they have the sense to avoid Christmas

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The Independent Online
CERTAIN things bother a turkey: not the prospect of evisceration, for a turkey is not contemplative; but less predictable happenings, such as hot-air balloons and men on ladders.

Ron How, the Buckinghamshire farmer who supplies British prime ministers with turkey dinners, explains: 'We have a lot of balloons going over Chesham (site of his 270-acre turkey farm). Some balloonists like to hedge- hop; the birds panic, huddle together, and we find them smothered to death. Now we've got the balloonists to agree to stay above 1,500 feet.

'It's the same with anything appearing high up. A man from the electricity board put his ladder against a pole and climbed it. When he'd gone, we checked the turkeys and there were 30 dead in a corner.

'There's no way you could prove it, but every time I pass the pens with a ladder on my shoulder, I whistle to alert them. And when I arrive at the inner pens unexpectedly, I knock on the door first or whistle a tune.'

Mr How's farm, started in 1935 by his late father Mervyn, is, he believes, the oldest in the British Turkey Federation. His mother, who died two years ago, aged 90, designed the first turkey 'saddle', a canvas affair looped over the wings of the hen before mating.

'If you saw the side of an unsaddled hen ripped off during natural mating you would understand. Natural mating can take up to five minutes, and the stag - I call them stags, not cocks - is stamping all over her with his claws. Ugh] So we used to get the canvas engine-covers from old Second World War aircraft and cut them up into saddles to protect them.'

Being slow and messy, natural mating doesn't happen much nowadays. Years ago Mr How decided to extract stag semen manually, and artificially inseminate the hen, an art no longer practised at Chesham. Now his birds arrive as day-old chicks.

'Collecting semen tended to make you a little bit attached to them,' he says. 'We would do it kneeling down because it was less stress on the birds - and us, for they're heavy to lift.'

Do his turkeys have individual personalities?

'Well, they used to, certainly. During the war, my father had one stag called Solomon. Oh, he was vicious. My father used to carry the feed on a yoke across his shoulders. And when he wasn't looking Solomon would fly up and hit him on the back, knocking him flat. Solomon was only 25lb, but that was big in those days.'

The American president, Benjamin Franklin, would have been bowled over by Solomon. He wrote to his daughter, Sarah: 'I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our Country . . . The turkey is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original Native of America.'

The turkey became popular Christmas meat comparatively recently. It had replaced swan as the nobility's favourite by 1555, but remained a luxury dish - the masses had to make do with goose - for 400 years. Only in the 1930s was it firmly established as Christmas fare and, as food freezers arrived, a meal for all seasons.

Until the current recession, Mr How, lean and healthy at 65, turned out 12,000 oven-readies and 'cut-ups' a year. 'This year we're down to 10,000, four-fifths of them hung with the gut in and sold as whole birds. Some butchers have gone out of business, unable to compete with the supermarkets. But sales (at the farm) are good. One supermarket manager came in the other day and got one of our turkeys. He said his own weren't good enough for him.'

Mr How says he eats turkey five times a week in various recipes. Wasn't that excessive? 'Oh no. You can do turkey shepherd's pie, turkey sausage, casseroles, steaks, spicy turkey, joints, or my own recipe: turkey liver, fried in sherry with onion and garlic. Yum.'

THE HOW turkey lives in clean straw, and, on the day of the knife, is enclosed by plastic walls regularly hosed down. Nothing is thrown away. 'The feathers go on the manure heap to be ploughed into the ground. The heads and feet are burned, then mixed with the manure. All this helps to produce the crops - wheat, barley, oats, straw - that feed our turkeys and line their pens. Bones become pet food.'

This Christmas we shall eat about nine million turkeys, and through the coming year consume the same number again. The British Association of Wholesale Poulterers says demand is 'rising slightly' despite the recession. A spokesman acknowledges that more people are trying goose, 'an expensive meal when you look at the bowl of fat after cooking and say 'bloody 'ell' at what's left after filling two plates.' Last week, the British Deer Farmers' Association launched a campaign to persuade us to eat venison which it said would soon rival turkey as Christmas fare.

The turkey's future, therefore, may be as uncertain as its origins, not to mention its name. A century and a half ago, Oliver Goldsmith wrote that some contended 'that it has been brought into Europe from the East Indies many centuries ago; while others assert that it is wholly unknown in that part of the world, that it is a native of the new continent, and that it was not brought into Europe till the discovery of that part of the world.'

Some claim it was first seen in France during the reign of Francis I and in England in that of Henry VIII, and argue that the turkey, as its name implies, was from the east.

A woman at the Turkish embassy in London confirms that turkey is appreciated on both sides of the Bosphorus, where it is called hindi. In India, where Hindi is spoken, the word is furkee. In France, served up at the wedding banquet of Charles IX in 1570, it was called coq et poule d'Inde (cock and hen from India), later shortened to dindon. Goldsmith blames the English adoption of the word 'turkey' on 'the ridiculous habit, formerly prevailing, of calling every foreign object by the name of Turk, Indian, &c'.

Nearly all modern turkeys are white. An early authority, Prince Charles Lucian Bonaparte, in his American Ornithology, found that the wild turkey, dark grey and bordered at the edges with bright gold, did not confine itself to any particular food, eating maize, berries of all sorts, fruits, grasses, beetles, tadpoles, even young frogs and lizards, pecan nuts and acorns.

The wild turkey is a dwarf compared with those raised today. While our taste tends towards 16-pounders, 'monster' turkeys capable of feeding 200 at a sitting are bred in Britain. A couple of years ago, a turkey called Tyson (after the boxer) weighed in at 86lb, fetching pounds 4,400 for charity.

At Ron How's farm the Chesham 'quality bird' arrives as a day-old chick from a Peterborough hatcher, who in turn had received the egg's parents from a specialist breeder, ensuring through selection that all turkeys are white-feathered and of good character. It takes 28 days for an egg to hatch and 16 weeks to be ready for roasting.

The growing bird is fed on wheat, barley, oats and soya beans, vitamins and minerals - 'no growth promoters or drugs on this farm,' says Mr How. In a temperature-controlled pen, the young chicks (for Easter) clamber confidently on one's shoes. In an adjoining pen, maturer stags back off, combs and wattles aquiver.

Not for them the joys of procreation, noted by Prince Bonaparte: 'On the rising of the sun, they descend from their perches, and the males begin to strut, for the purpose of winning the admiration of their mates, spreading their tails, throwing the head backwards, distending the comb and wattles, rustling their wings and ejecting a puff of wind from the lungs, while the female also struts, and even gobbles, evincing much desire . . . and suddenly opening her wings, throws herself towards him, as if to terminate her procrastination, and, laying herself on the earth, receives his dilatory caresses.' (Bonaparte's turkeys were unsaddled.)

Life is pretty kind to the Chesham turkey. Blackhead, a liver disease which darkens their heads, is rare today. But animal rights enthusiasts are such a worry that Mr How asks me not to give his precise address. 'They raided a pen - not mine - a few years ago and set the poor birds free on a Welsh mountain where they were eaten by foxes or died of exposure,' he says.

(Photographs omitted)