Lucy Beattie raises between 50 and 100 turkeys each year on her farm in Ullapool
Lucy Beattie raises between 50 and 100 turkeys each year on her farm in Ullapool

Plenty of pluck in Scotland’s turkey industry

Scotland’s small farmers raise, slaughter and prepare their own turkeys.

It’s January, and the memories of the festive season are disappearing rapidly into the distance.

Gone are the trees and lights, the decorations are down, and the turkey has long since been basted, cooked and eaten.

In many ways Christmas encapsulates what my Ethical Carnivore project is all about. It is a time of celebration and giving thanks. In the old days we did this by feasting on meat.

Whether it was a goose or a turkey at the centre of the table, it was a treat. The whole family would know where the animal came from and perhaps would have contributed to feeding, killing and preparing it. Every morsel would be appreciated. Nothing would be wasted.

Like many aspects of Christmas, somewhere along the way we have forgotten this. We eat meat all year round. We have little idea of how the bird was raised, slaughtered or even cooked. We gobble up turkey without thinking twice. The bones go in the bin.

As with the rest of my book, I want to find out exactly where the meat comes from, so I phone up a friend who keeps turkeys in Ullapool.

Lucy Beattie raises 50 to 100 turkeys every year to supplement her income. Like many small Scottish farms, the turkeys fit in quite happily, scratching around the in-bye for a few months, growing fat for the festive season.

When I arrive the lucky ones are still eating seaweed on the shores of Loch Broom. They are magnificent birds, even more so against the backdrop of the snowy mountains. The landscape could hardly be more dif ferent to North America and Mexico, where the species comes from. We have been eating turkeys in this country since Tudor times but it was only in the Victorian era – and largely thanks to Dickens – that it became a Christmas staple, and only recently that we began to farm them intensively.

Every year around 18 million turkeys are slaughtered in the UK, over half of which are eaten at Christmas. The majority are kept indoors in huge ventilated barns with sawdust on the floor and a minimum of eight hours of artificial light. High numbers do not necessarily mean the turkeys are suffering, but there are some serious welfare concerns.

Firstly, the breeding of turkeys has been speeded up so that the males reach up to 25kg – the size of a small labrador – in under six months.

The birds are bred to have especially large breasts, but this means that many have leg problems as they struggle to hold up the weight.

Secondly, the density has given cause for concern. Up to 25,000 turkeys can be kept in one barn, and as fl ock birds they are quite happy to be together, but over-crowding will lead to feather-pecking and even cannibalism.

For free-range turkeys the minimum is 25kg per square metre – twice as much as an intensively farmed turkey enjoys, but still only a little larger than an opened broadsheet newspaper.

Lastly, there are questions over how turkeys are slaughtered. Today most will be rounded up into a chamber and ‘put to sleep’ using gas. Shocking as this is, it is actually the preferred method of welfare charities, compared to electric stunning using a water bath.

Lucy Beattie raises between 50 and 100 turkeys each year on her farm in Ullapool

To ensure a high standard of turkey, from birth to death, look out for the RSPCA Assured label or the organic symbol – or, even better, buy a bird from your local farmer. Of course it will cost more but the turkey will taste completely different if it is slow-grown and has had the chance to exercise outside and forage for insects.

For Lucy Beattie at Leckmelm near Ullapool, it was important to buy a breed that could live a good life outdoors for a few months and to kill the birds humanely. She agrees to show me how the birds are killed and processed as she is confident that it compares favourably to any shop-bought bird. In fact local school children are invited along every year to learn where their meat comes from. Although it is not a pleasant process, I find watching the slaughter a lot less difficult than in an abattoir, perhaps because it is slower, seems more gentle and is carried out by a person I trust.

Lucy did a course with the Humane Slaughter Association and carries out the slaughter herself.

First the turkey is lowered gently into a cut-off upside-down traffic cone fixed to a bench, so only its neck is hanging out. Lucy clamps an electric stunner on the head and counts for ‘10 elephants’, checking care fully afterwards for blinking or the ‘corneal reflex’. I watch the huge turkey feet stretch out and splay, like dinosaur prints.

Within seconds it is over. The throat is cut and the blood drains into a plastic bucket. ‘I’m the softest person I know,’ says Lucy quietly. ‘I just have to get on with it.’

Once they’re dead, Lucy’s turkeys are hung in the larder, built with the help of a government grant. A group of ‘right wee pluckers’ – me included – wash our hands and take a turkey each, starting on the breast of the bird. Everyone is local and grateful for some extra work to boost Christmas incomes.

The larder soon looks like the aftermath of a pillow fight. I want to say it is somehow festive, the feathers falling like snow, but it’s not. The feathers gather at my feet like a duvet but even so, in the refrigerated larder my toes are freezing cold. The only way to keep warm is the excited chat about plans for the holidays.

By the end of the day I am exhausted and dirty, but I have a real appreciation of the hard work that has gone into raising a turkey and gratitude to all the people involved – and isn’t that, after all, what Christmas is about?

(This feature was originally published in 2015)