Talking Turkey by Margery Hookings

MedwayThe grassy banks behind Medway Farm sound like a babbling brook.

The paddock nestles on the lush slopes of Eggardon Hill and the field is full of turkeys. They’re burbling like water flowing over boulders and scrabbling around, displaying tail feathers more spectacular than anything you might see at the Folies Bergere.

It’s a typically seasonal scene here in Askerswell, where Alistair Coutts has been rearing turkeys for Christmas for the past 27 years.

“The first time I had turkeys I was about 12 on the family farm in West Sussex,” he recalls. “It was a sheep farm, mainly, and I did five turkeys for the family. Then the next year it just grew, I’d got the bug.”

These days, Alistair, 43, has 500 turkeys each year—300 bronze birds which are free range and 200 barn-reared, white ones. He’s supported by his wife, Claire, 38, and children Harry, 16, Charlotte, 14, and Poppy, 8.

“They’re all part of the team and happy to help out.”

Which is just as well, because at this time of year, things are pretty hectic.

The barn-reared birds are destined for the catering trade and local butchers. They can get pretty big, up to 30lbs in weight, making them ideal for Christmas parties.

The bronze turkeys, so named because of the iridescent sheen of their plumage, are mainly destined to be sold at the farm gate, which accounts for about 90 per cent of sales. The rest go to butchers.

“They take a long time to mature,” Alistair says. “We buy them in as chicks at the end of July and we feed them on locally-produced barley corn, which slows down their growth and gives them a nice flavour.

“We buy enough in to have batches of weights so we can juggle things around with their feeding to make sure we get them as close to the weight to what the customer has asked for.

“They’re quite inquisitive. They know when someone different comes into the field or barn. They get used to us, they know our faces and clothing, and come running when we are anywhere near them.”

December is a busy month at Medway Farm. It all gets very intense in the run up to Christmas and the whole family puts in long hours to get the job done.

Every morning, Alistair will go out and mix the corn with protein pellets. Then he does the rounds of the hoppers in the barn, so the turkeys can eat at any time they like during the day. They’re checked at teatime, and the hoppers filled up again with feed.

“They’re quite easy to look after. The only worry is a fox or badger getting in. If there’s any noise we have to make sure the fox isn’t in amongst them.”

When the birds are ready, they are killed, plucked and gutted on the farm, prepared in a five-star rated area and then hung for about 10 to 12 days to improve the flavour.

The children help out with the plucking, which they do for pocket money, and speaking to customers, although it’s Alistair’s mother, Janet, to whom customers usually speak on the phone.

The turkeys are an important sideline to the 120-acre sheep farm, which Alistair says survives only through diversification, which includes farm gate pork sales, two holiday cottages, created from a stone barn next to the farmhouse, and fishing ponds. He has a day job as a landscape gardener and Claire is a hairdresser.

“If we hadn’t diversified, we’d have gone under,” Alistair says. It’s a familiar story on farms of similar acreage throughout the area.

And with that, a car comes up the farm track, another customer about to order his turkey for Christmas.


Medway Farm 01308 485538