More than 15 million turkeys are slaughtered in the UK every year, including 9 million over the festive season, according to the British Poultry Council (BPC).
But due to modern breeding techniques, issues for the birds start from the moment of conception.
Male turkeys are now so big that mating is often dangerous for the female, and sometimes physically impossible.
It means females are artificially inseminated, potentially exposing both them and the “milked” males to additional stress and possible injury.
Once hatched, more than 70 per cent of chicks will be reared in intensive farms, where they are kept indoors with thousands of others and will never be allowed outside or to see daylight.
At around a day old they are “debeaked”, a process which sees the upper part of the beak sliced off using an infrared laser.
This is to prevent feather pecking, but is likely “extremely unpleasant”, according to Marisa Erasmus, a turkey-welfare specialist at Purdue university in Indiana.
“Their beaks are one of the main sensory organs so they have a lot of nerves in their beaks,” she said.
“It seems it’s the lesser of two evils, because if you don’t trim their beaks you may have more issues with feather-pecking, and they can cause quite a lot of damage to each other.”
According to a study in the US, more than half of all deaths in commercial turkeys were associated with pecking of some form.
The UK has banned debeaking in laying hens – birds which are also known to feather-peck – but it remains legal in turkeys and there is little discussion over implementing a ban, according to Ms Erasmus.
After debeaking, turkeys have up to 28 weeks packed into an indoor facility before they are shipped off to the slaughterhouse.
In those six months, there is often a great deal of suffering.
Campaigners say many turkeys sold as meat are bred to put on weight so quickly their limbs cannot support their bodies.
Hip and joint problems are common, and they can become lame, leaving them in intense pain and unable to properly walk, meaning they struggle to reach food or water supplies.
This can then make them susceptible to aggression from other birds.
Other common problems include a lack of eye development, due to low levels of light, and fights – sometimes resulting in death – among aggressive males.
“The crowded conditions and welfare standards of intensively farmed birds in the UK is abhorrent and out of keeping with the festive season,” says Nick Palmer, head of Compassion in World Farming.
“Fast growth resulting in heavy bodies puts great strain on turkeys who have been bred specifically for Christmas dining tables around the UK.”
Last week, The Independent revealed “horrifically deformed” turkeys had been discovered at a factory farm named as a supplier to some of the UK’s biggest supermarket chains.
Once turkeys are ready for slaughter, males can weigh up to 20kg – about the same as a six-year-old child and more than two times as heavy as commercial turkeys 50 years ago.
After being transferred to the abattoir, they may be gassed in crates, or hung upside down by their legs before being put through an electrical water bath, which stuns the birds before their throats are cut.
“Heavy birds, that vary in size and are hung upside down before being stunned, run the risk of getting a pre-stun shock by flapping their wings, or other movement where they may touch the water,” said Mr Palmer.
“Other risks include a bird pulling its head out of the way of the waterbath, and therefore having its throat cut while still fully conscious. At an already stressful time, this is a painful way to die.”
A major problem regarding turkey welfare, however, is simply not enough research has been done.
“There are very few people actually doing research in turkey welfare and some of what we go on, we have to use what we know about chickens as a starting point,” said Ms Erasmus.
Shoppers keen to ensure they buy a turkey that has received a better quality of life should consider buying free range, or birds certified by either the RSPCA or the Red Tractor logo.
“We encourage producers and businesses to opt for slower-growing breeds with access to outside space so that they can exercise and perform natural behaviours,” said Mr Palmer.
“For those who are planning on buying a turkey this Christmas, we urge them to choose an organic or free-range bird.”
Shraddha Kaul, public affairs manager at the British Poultry Council, however, said: “CIWF’s remarks sound like scaremongering to me and show little understanding of the current practices that deliver both good welfare and, more broadly, the most sustainable production methods.
“The welfare measures used by British turkey farmers keep pace with science, whether that is in stocking density, environmental enrichment, natural light, nutrition, or other aspects.
“Collectively these produce a welfare standard, and broader environmental practices, that British consumers trust.”
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