A Lancashire turkey farmer has revealed how to guarantee yourself a bird for Christmas amid fears over food shortages.

John Atkinson and his son Matthew are gearing up for one of the busiest times of the year as they keep a close watch over the 350 turkeys they have nurtured since birth.

At their farm, in Briercliffe near Burnley, John and Matthew go to extreme lengths to make sure their birds are as happy and healthy as possible to ensure the best quality meat is served on tables across Lancashire on Christmas Day.

"They're very playful," Matthew says as he inspects some of the single-breast turkeys exploring the cosy barn where they shelter from the rain.

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John Atkinson surveys his turkeys as they explore their free-range field and 'play area'
John Atkinson surveys his turkeys as they explore their free-range field and 'play area'

Matthew cares so much about the turkeys' extra-curricular activities he's even built them a makeshift obstacle course out of pallets which the birds love to climb on.

"Whenever they see a horse in a neighbouring field, or someone pulls up at the side of the road to take a look, the turkeys all go racing over," he added.

The turkeys at Atkinson's Farm are ready to be slaughtered (done in-house) when they are 24 weeks. Compared to the intensively-reared battery hens used by the likes of fast-food chicken chains turkeys here have a relatively long life and they are all free to roam outside.

Roost ruler: A turkey sits atop a fence panel inside the barn
Roost ruler: A turkey sits atop a fence panel inside the barn

John took over the family farm from his parents and one day Matthew will take the helm. As well as turkeys, which they sell direct to local butchers and customers, they also have around 100 beef cattle which are sold at auction.

Every year, in June, they head down to Essex and buy that year's group of one-day-old chicks having placed their order in March. The turkeys are conceived using artificial insemination as, Matthew explains, "the males are too big for the females so they just wouldn't be able to mate naturally".

The 24-hour-old chicks each cost between £5 and £7 and the Atkinsons only buy females as they produce better meat - if they were to breed their own there would be no way of guaranteeing a girl-only flock.

Rearing the chicks is "intensive work" as the farmers keep a close eye on their growth in a bid to ensure the orders customers have placed, based on a bird's weight, are met.

John's turkeys will tend to start laying eggs in December, as they reach a certain age, but of course with no males in sight (the males are the ones which make the stereotypical 'gobble gobble' sound) they aren't fertilised.

"You can eat them but the yolks are a lot paler and tend to be tougher if you fry them," John, 66, says.

"My wife uses them for cooking."

John examines one of his turkeys - the birds are ready for Christmas at around 24-weeks-old
John examines one of his turkeys - the birds are ready for Christmas at around 24-weeks-old

John and Matthew don't supply to supermarkets as "it's a price war" and as John adds: "It's just not my scene; I'll leave that to the big boys."

John is well aware of the possibility of food shortages hitting supermarkets this Christmas but it's a "world away" from how he operates.

"The Christmas market has changed so much over the years," he says.

"Everything's last minute now. Sometimes we get people turning up on December 20 asking for a turkey but we just don't work like that; if you order in advance you're guaranteed a bird."

The coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on the farming industry and John and Matthew have had a lot to contend with over the last 18 months.

Turkeys being reared at Atkinson's Farm
Turkeys being reared at Atkinson's Farm

"The cost of feed, gas for the heaters and even the price per chick has all gone up," he says.

"Last year, because of lockdown, everyone wanted a small turkey because they weren't allowed to have a big family dinner. And because people were worried about food shortages they ordered their turkeys in plenty of time."

The big question of course is, do the Atkinsons have a turkey for their Christmas dinner?

"Of course," John adds proudly.

"Assuming we've got one left!"

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