For many of us, turkey is ubiquitously associated with Christmas, the centre place in an elaborate spread that can be days in the making. Native to South America, the wild turkey was first domesticated around 800 BC, and early European explorers brought the rather peculiar looking birds back to our shores in the 16th Century. Goose or duck used to be the Christmas fare of choice, but it was Edward VII that made turkey the favoured focal point of our seasonal celebrations - now more than three-quarters of us sit down to a turkey dinner on Christmas day.
The Industrial TurkeyThe truth is that most turkeys consumed during the modern festive period bear little resemblance to their wild ancestors. Since the 1960’s, industrial farming has favoured a single breed, known as Broad Breasted White, which has been bred to grow quickly and maximise breast meat on the bird. The average modern turkey weighs in at twice the weight of its wild counterpart but reaches maturity in half the time (around 14-18 weeks). The hunt for a heavy bird has reached such a point that the animals are no longer able to fly or mate naturally as they are so heavy, and so artificial insemination is necessary.
Often kept in close quarters in large sheds (containing up to 50,000 birds at a time), these birds are often so cramped that each only has an area the size of two-thirds of an opened broadsheet newspaper to itself, and beak trimming is a commonplace practice in order to prevent pecking. The supermarket version of ‘free-range’ doesn’t necessarily mean things are much better, as a majority of these birds are still raised in an industrial setting – the stocking density is around half that of their battery counterparts, and while they are required to have access to the outdoors, the way they are raised and housed means that most will never venture outside.
A Heritage Bird
There are several heritage varieties of turkey, many of which retain their wild ancestor’s beautiful coloured plumage, with the most common breeds being Norfolk Black, Bronze and Bourbon Red. These birds are much slower growing, usually taking twice as long as an industrially raised turkey to reach maturity, which results in meat with a much richer flavour.
As the birds are not as large, or grown as quickly, they are much more suited to an outdoor environment. They are happiest venturing around a field, pecking at bugs and pasture and enjoying the fresh air and exercise, which also helps develop strong leg muscles and a larger proportion of brown meat on the carcass. As they are lighter and more physically balanced, they are also able to mate naturally, rather than being artificially inseminated.
The Pipers Farm turkey
We raise Bronze turkeys, a heritage breed that came about by crossing wild turkeys with European domesticated birds in the 18th Century. With a dark plumage and a beautiful coppery-metallic sheen, their colouring closely resembles their wild ancestors.
Our turkeys are grown for us by two local farms; a mixed family farm just four miles from Pipers Farm where two generations of the Snell family work together to raise turkeys, pigs and sheep for us, and Christine and John, farmers on a second-generation Dartmoor hill farm who have been raising truly free-range turkeys for more than 30 years. “We initially started doing Christmas turkeys to aid with cash flow, but they are now a major part of the family business. Besides it just wouldn't be Christmas without the mad rush in December!” John jokes.
The journey of our turkeys begins in late spring when the chicks hatch and live in a brooder for around three weeks to allow them time to grow the feathers needed to protect them outside. At this point, they move to their grassy hillside home where they live as ‘properly’ free-range birds – roaming the fields in which they live, pecking through the pasture for insects and bugs. “Free Range to me isn't so many square metres per bird in the pasture, but the sight of turkeys appearing from the fields, running and flapping back for feeding time,” John points out. Their diet is made up of only good, natural food; cereals, grass, nettles fodder beet and cider apples.
“Our birds are 28 weeks old, which means they have reached full maturity and put on a natural finish of fat,” John explains. When they reach the end of their lives, they are killed by hand, dry plucked, then hung for at least two weeks to develop the wonderful tenderness and depth of flavour that only one of our free-range heritage bird can offer. “Pipers understand what it takes to produce a quality product and they appreciate the extra effort involved in free range, slow grown, game hung turkeys,” John finishes.
We sell a range of different size and birds for all your Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year needs. From a show-stopping whole bird to our unique ‘Simplest Turkey’ – an innovative idea that offers you a selection of breast and leg meat, separately rolled and stuffed so your special meal is as straightforward as possible. You can find the full range of Christmas Turkey here.