Consumers warned of ‘big’ shortage of British free range turkeys this Christmas

Turkey is a popular Christmas dinner choice in many UK households. Credit: PA

Consumers have been warned of a “big, big shortage” of British free range turkeys this Christmas - with half already dead because of bird flu sweeping the UK.

Half of the free range turkeys produced for Christmas in the UK have already been killed in th epidemic, British Poultry Council chief executive Richard Griffiths told the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

Mr Griffiths said: “The usual amount of free range birds grown for Christmas is around 1.2 to 1.3 million. We have seen around 600,000 of those free range birds being directly affected.”

Total UK turkey production for Christmas was around 8.5 to 9 million birds, but around a million had been culled or died from bird flu, he confirmed.

Asked what that might mean for prices this Christmas, Mr Griffiths said “I don’t know. That’s really a question for retailers. We don’t know how the gaps within retail are going to be filled at this point.”

Poultry farmer Paul Kelly, of Kelly Turkeys, told the committee: “I don’t think UK turkey prices will be going up. I think it will just be a supply issue rather than the prices being hiked.

“But there will be a big, big shortage of British free range turkeys on the shelves this year.”

Some 1.6 million birds have been culled as of November 20 directly because of bird flu on farms, Mr Griffiths told the committee, with around 36% of poultry farms affected by the outbreak.

Defra and the British Poultry Council have said the issue is with free range turkeys, and there are no concerns around the supplies of other birds.

The government has ordered all poultry and captive birds in England to be kept indoors to fight avian flu.

Mr Kelly said the outbreak – the worst ever faced in the UK – had been “devastating” for farmers.

He said: “The challenge for a lot of the smaller seasonal producers that produce Christmas poultry is they have their Christmas flock on their farm and when the turkeys are infected they all die within four days.

“To give you an example, we had one farmer with 9,500 (birds). The first infection was on Thursday evening, 20 mortality, and by Monday lunchtime they were all dead.”

Mr Kelly said: “We’re a small business and we’ve lost £1.2 million this year – just turkeys that have died.

“Luckily we’re going to get through to next year but … can we take the risk to grow Christmas poultry based on what we’ve seen this year? We couldn’t. And had I known what I know now we would not have grown the turkeys we did.

“Looking to next year, I don’t want to put the farm at risk.

“Without a vaccine in place or a compensation scheme that is fit for purpose, I don’t know whether we’d have the confidence to grow Christmas poultry next year.”

Mr Griffiths added: “This year the seasonal producers have been so badly affected. I can see many of those taking a good hard look at whether they want to be in Christmas poultry.”

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