Shropshire turkey suppliers face anxious wait and rising costs amid bird flu fears

Turkey suppliers are 'living on a knife edge' in the weeks before Christmas as the devastating impact of bird flu threatens to hit home.

There are concerns over a turkey shortage
There are concerns over a turkey shortage

Consumers were this week warned of a “big, big shortage” of British free-range turkeys over the festive period.

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

One butcher – Darren Morgan, who runs Morgan's Country Butchers in Waters Upton, near Telford – said his suppliers – Huxleys – had been impacted, leading to a heart-breaking cull.

Others, such as Wrekin Turkeys, have spoken of the 'nervous wait' and the costly efforts to ensure they don't suffer a similar fate.

"This is impacting on everyone," a spokesman for Wrekin Turkeys said. "We have all had to comply with the housing order that came into force at the beginning of November, which meant everything had to come indoors or go under nets.

"It's a lot harder than normal. We have a couple more weeks to stay safe and that means it's even more nerve-wracking because something could happen at any time.

"The turkeys have taken a lot more caring for, I have to say. When they can be left to their own devices, it's easier. Our costs have gone up in terms of straw bedding and excess labour, keeping the runs clean and so on.

"We are keeping an eye on bird species in the area. You are constantly anxious they are going to get into the sheds. Fortunately, we are not too near water courses, where there's a higher risk status.

"We have also had to tighten security because whenever there is a shortage you not only have to watch foxes but also two-legged thieves, looking to make a quick buck, so we have had to up that as well.

"It's just a case of fingers crossed. We are still going and have some birds still available.

"For those impacted, the government do help. There are compensation schemes for farmers – they will compensate for healthy birds which are culled – but it's devastating for those who have been impacted because it is a lot of work."

Rosie Wadlow, from family-run Huxleys Turkeys, confirmed they had been impacted, saying: "It's been terrible. We are absolutely devastated. All our birds have had to be culled."

Darren Morgan of Morgan's Butchers.

The farm supplies the likes of Morgan's Country Butchers and Mr Morgan said: "It's something that is causing disruption locally and nationally and it seems to be getting worse.

"It's been really devastating for our suppliers because you only need it to happen to one and unfortunately the whole crop is condemned and culled.

"It has affected us and several other butchers in the area and further afield. Other butchers will look to source from elsewhere, but we are loyal to our suppliers and know their quality. We won't go anywhere else; we have a long association with them, and the quality is always top-notch. Hopefully, our suppliers will be back on form for next year.

"We deal with a separate supplier for the Stag birds, which give a boneless breast, and they have been alright, so we will sell those still.

"It's just been terrible for the producer and us, as well as the customers who plumped for those birds. We hoped we could get away with it but unfortunately, you just don't know. We will still have plenty of meat to feed people and will endeavour to make sure everyone is well served."

Other butchers have so far escaped any concerns with Kevin Battams, of M Battams Butchers Oswestry saying: "Touch wood, all being well we are fine with our suppliers. Everything is okay for us but we won't tempt fate. Hopefully, in a couple of weeks, they will all be coming out to us."

Dan Allen-Rafferty

Dan Allen-Raftery, owner of Meatmasters Butchery, Newtown, is trying to persuade customers to opt for either lamb, beef or chicken cushions rather than a whole fresh turkey which is selling for between £50 and £100.

“There is no problem getting hold of turkeys from local suppliers but it’s the price you have to pay for them,” he said.

“I think it’s up to the butcher to try and find alternatives that are not going to cost families a fortune when most people are struggling because of the rising cost of living.

“Instead of spending between £50 and £100 for a turkey, I am encouraging them to have a leg of lamb, a beef joint or a chicken cushion, which is a boned, stuffed chicken wrapped in bacon with garlic and tarragon. I sold 30 chicken cushions last week.

“A lot of customers are asking for a small piece of turkey and they are buying one of our hampers which contain a gammon joint, beef, chicken cushion, sausage meat, pigs in blankets and bacon.”

Jamie Tully

Jamie Tully, executive chef at Chartists 1770 at The Trewythen, a four-star restaurant with rooms in Llanidloes, says a combination of bird flu and the traditional Christmas market is pushing up turkey prices higher than usual.

“We source our turkeys from a trusted Welsh supplier, so we are confident that we will be ok for the festive season, although we will have to pay more,” he said. “It’s market forces at work: when demand increases, so does the price.

“As food prices in general are going up, we are all going to have to pay more for our Christmas meal this year.”

Some 1.6 million birds have been culled as of November 20 directly because of bird flu on farms, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee was told this week with around 36% of poultry farms affected by the outbreak.

Mr Griffiths said: “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.”

Edward Garratt

Edward Garratt, NFU Shropshire adviser, spoke of the challenges facing farmers in the region.

He said: “Ongoing, soaring production costs are putting the poultry sector under immense pressure.

“Shropshire poultry farmers have faced sky-rocketing energy and feed costs for months now, as well as increases in fuel, labour and packaging, which are all adding to the overall costs of production on the farm.

“I want to assure shoppers, that while there are pressures, county farmers will continue to do everything they can to produce quality, affordable eggs and poultry meat which we know are valued highly.

“Our poultry members must have the confidence they need, working within a fair and transparent supply chain, ensuring fair returns so they can do what they do best - meet demand from shoppers for quality British eggs and poultry meat.

“In the meantime, the NFU is exploring all avenues it can to help resolve this situation including conversations with retailers and calling on Government to look in detail at the current supply chain issues.”

Poultry owners in Powys were, meanwhile, urged by the county council to follow biosecurity and housing measures. The requirements for poultry and captive birds are being taken to get ahead of a possible increased level of avian influenza virus in the environment and build extra resilience to the important measures introduced in October through the Wales Avian Influenza Prevention Zone.

From Friday, it us a legal requirement for all bird keepers to keep their birds indoors or otherwise separated from wild birds. Keepers must also complete and act upon a bespoke biosecurity review of the premises where birds are kept. This is to minimise the risk of virus entry in bird houses, which usually results in high mortality.

These new measures are in addition to those in the Wales Avian Influenza Prevention Zone.

Now Powys County Council’s Animal Health Team is encouraging bird keepers to prepare for the introduction of the new measures, by making sure housing is suitable, with the housed environment enhanced to protect bird welfare. Keepers should consult their vet for advice where needed.

Councillor Richard Church, cabinet member for a safer Powys, said: “Housing is effective in protecting birds against avian influenza only if accompanied by rigorous biosecurity to keep the virus out of bird houses.

“This is best done by completing the biosecurity checklist, which will be compulsory for all keepers.”

In Shropshire, auctioneer James Evans, a director of Halls, spoke of a boom in demand for British beef. He added: “Because the pound is weak against other currencies, meat imports to the UK are more expensive which means there is a greater focus on home-reared cattle.

“Consumers are demanding fewer food miles on the products they buy, so supermarkets are focusing more on British beef and lamb, which are also boosted by the uncertainty, caused by bird flu, surrounding the Christmas availability of turkey.”

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