The life of a Hertfordshire Christmas turkey

03rd December 2018

The Crosse family at Ickleford’s Holme Farm has been rearing turkeys since 1964. With the rise of meat-free diets, how is the traditional Christmas bird faring?

My knees are being pecked. It’s a gentle pecking and it’s rather enjoyable. And oh, what’s this? I feel a brush of velvet on the backs of my knees.

No, this isn’t the latest alternative therapy – remember the nibbling goldfish pedicure? – I’m visiting Holme Farm in Ickleford, where the resident turkeys are curious about this visitor and are giving me the warmest of welcomes. When I first step foot in the paddock, the flock runs towards me. The noise is deafening. While we think of turkeys gobbling, this sound is more like chattering.

These aren’t just any old turkeys. They are free range, bronze turkeys, enjoying a natural cereal diet without any antibiotics ever passing their beaks. They also like nibbling grass. They are living a blessed life – until December 5.

‘If you throw them an apple, they run like rugby players,’ says Sue Crosse, as we start looking for windfalls to play with the turkeys. Some of them play ball. The others start larking around – jostling and jumping on top of hay bales.

‘They are real characters and they are very funny,’ says William, who as the trained slaughterman, is responsible for ‘dispatching’ the turkeys in time for Christmas.

The Crosse family has been farming in Hertfordshire since 1953 and they’ve been rearing turkeys since 1964. William and Julie Crosse and their children live with the turkeys in Ickleford, and William’s brother John Crosse and his wife and children have sheep and pigs on their farm in nearby Baldock.

They have only been rearing the free range bronze turkeys for the last 10 years. Bronze turkeys have the black velvety feathers that often leave dark stubs after plucking. When Scrooge offered half a crown for a boy to run and order the prize turkey at the poulterer’s to give to his clerk Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol, it would have had black feathers. The pearly white turkeys that many of us are familiar with only came about because in the 1950s the black stubs were deemed unpalatable by shoppers, and so began a taste for the pearly white turkeys that have been the staple at most of our Christmas tables. White turkeys still have feathers and stubs – you just can’t see them.

Holme Farm is part of the Traditional Farm-fresh Turkey Association (TFTA) and it has a high ‘Golden Turkey’ standard for its top-notch birds. This Christmas they will sell 850 from the farm gate on December 23 and Christmas Eve. The Crosse family do also breed white barn- reared turkeys because some people still prefer to eat meat that doesn’t have any trace of dark feathers. I meet the barn-reared turkeys and I can confirm that they have lots of room and light and bales to play on.

At Holme Farm, the bronze turkey poults arrive in June when they are a day old. The poults are graded according to size, with names including: tiny, super mini, wrolstad and roly poly. They come from Farmgate Hatcheries in Danbury, Essex, owned by Paul Kelly, the ethical farmer of KellyBronze turkey fame who is an ambassador for turkey welfare.

‘They’re like a little ball of fluff when they arrive,’ says John.

The turkeys then enjoy a free range, outdoorsy kind of life until December. At Holme Farm they sleep in a barn at night to protect them from predators. Some free range turkey farmers use sheepdogs to protect their flock, and a farm in Hampshire has alpacas working as security guards on the night shift.

At Holme Farm, after they are killed, they are plucked – a process that is started by machine and then finished by hand. The evisceration is also done by hand before each turkey is ‘game hung’ on its own hook in the maturation chamber for up to a fortnight. In addition to the high standards of welfare and their lifespan – these turkeys live twice as long as a mass market one; effectively an immature bird – it is the hanging that contributes to the superior texture and flavour of bronze turkeys.

‘And don’t overcook them!’ warns Sue, who describes how they pack the turkeys for collection in boxes with herbs and cooking instructions. The days of setting the alarm to get the Christmas bird in the oven are hopefully a thing of the past. Thanks, in no small part to tv chefs, we now have a better idea about cooking turkeys without stuffing them, and for a much shorter time.

For the Crosse family it’s not just turkey for Christmas – they enjoy eating their own birds throughout the year. Sue says that tastes have changed slightly over the years, with some customers asking for a crown. ‘Although everything is better cooked on the bone,’ she says.

Are we still eating as much turkey at Christmas? I’ve heard tell of families serving – whisper it – sea bream and red snapper on Christmas Day. And today, one in eight Britons is now vegetarian or vegan, according to a recent annual food and drink report by Waitrose. A further 21 per cent of us claim to be ‘flexitarian’, choosing a largely plant-based diet. And according to the Vegan Society, the number of vegans has grown fourfold in four years, from 150,000 to 600,000. Does this mean Christmas turkey sales are in decline?

‘Turkey consumption is steady and has been for many years,’ says Chloe Ryan, editor of Poultry News. ‘People are opting for premium products – free range and organic birds and turkey crowns.’

We bought 12.4 million kg of turkey last year in the run up to Christmas, according to Kantar Worldpanel, the global expert in shoppers’ behaviour.

‘Sales of turkey haven’t dropped over the years,’ says Lucy Chapman, consumer insight director at Kantar, adding that smaller households are making turkey crowns an increasingly popular option. ‘And even if you’re a flexitarian, you’re likely to stick with turkey on Christmas Day.’ Although, she adds: ‘We have seen an increase in vegetarian and vegan options in party food and nibbly things such as vol-au-vents.’

Will we ever see a time when turkey is eaten regularly year-round and not just at Christmas? Henry VIII was the first English king to enjoy turkey at Christmas – before that, peacock had always been the preferred Christmas meat at royal courts.

‘Turkey has always been the bird of celebration,’ notes Chloe Ryan.

At Holme Farm, the Crosse family did try to promote turkey sales at Easter but it didn’t really catch on. When it comes to people arriving at the farm gate to collect their turkey on Christmas Eve, everyone in the family is there to meet and greet and help out, says William. Are there traffic jams?

‘It can get interesting,’ says William, adding that it’s best to order in advance – it’s risky to turn up on Christmas Eve. You can’t take pot luck with a turkey.

Where to buy your turkey this Christmas

• Holme Farm

Bedford Road, Ickleford, 01462 712229

• M & J Oakley Farming

Dairy Farm, Bygrave Road, Baldock, 01462 892253

• Hanrox Free Range Turkeys

Hanrox Meadows, Blunts Lane, Chiswell Green, 07932 041091

• Temple Farm Turkeys

S J Frederick & Sons, Temple Farm Drive, Roydon

• Brookfield Farm

Aston End Road, Aston, 01438 880228

• Foxholes Farm Shop

London Road, Hertford, 01992 552900