Norfolk poultry producers have started their Christmas turkey campaign early this year as anxious farmers pray for a reprieve from the devastation of bird flu.

Traditional Norfolk Poultry (TNP), based in Shropham, near Attleborough, lost almost 300,000 birds on eight farms last autumn, when the region became the epicentre of the nation's worst-ever avian influenza outbreak.

Some of those farms have only just seen their flocks return after a lengthy clean-up operation.

But although the risk level is now much lower, a confirmed case in Lincolnshire on November 9 is a timely reminder that the disease remains a threat to this key East Anglian farm sector.

So, this year, TNP began processing turkeys 10 days earlier than usual, in the first week of November, partly as a "risk mitigation" measure to get free-range poultry off the land before the infection risk from migrating wild birds rises during the winter.

Managing director Mark Gorton said the company is taking all possible precautions to prevent a repeat of last year's losses.

"There is a huge amount of training with the staff on biosecurity, bird-proofing all the sheds, anything we can do to keep the wild birds away," he said.

"Last year we stopped all visitors to farms but even now we don't go to farms unless we really need to.

Eastern Daily Press: Free-range turkeys reared by Traditional Norfolk PoultryFree-range turkeys reared by Traditional Norfolk Poultry (Image: Traditional Norfolk Poultry)

"And when we are filling our turkey sheds up with straw we take it straight off the harvest field  into the shed, so it is not sitting around letting all the birds perch on it."

Mr Gorton said vaccination would be the long-term solution to bird flu - and he is optimistic the first UK trials could happen next year, if legislation allows.

"The French are vaccinating all their ducks across the country this year as a trial, and they are using a dual-purpose vaccine that would also work in chickens," he said.

"The big hold-up is the legislation, the testing and the cost, because if you vaccinate your flock you will then have to test it regularly to check whether it has got the virus, because you would not necessarily see it because you would not get any deaths.

"The testing is going to cost an absolute fortune. For a business like us it would cost millions, so it is completely unviable. The French have found a way of doing it, but it has to be said that the French government are funding 85pc of it.

"So, the vaccines are there, and people want to do it, but how are we going to monitor it? We think, if it is going to happen, it will probably be done next year in the seasonal turkey flocks as a tester. That is realistic, depending on legislation."

Agricultural director Jim Lambert said "continual training of staff" was the immediate biosecurity priority - but he is very pleased with the quality of this year's turkeys.

"The turkeys are looking really good, exceptional," he said. "The weights are where they need to be and the health is second to none this year. It is looking good at the moment - fingers crossed."

Eastern Daily Press: Traditional Norfolk Poultry's directors, from left, Mark Gorton, Andy Holt, Scott Mckinney and Jim LambertTraditional Norfolk Poultry's directors, from left, Mark Gorton, Andy Holt, Scott Mckinney and Jim Lambert (Image: Chris Hill)


Traditional Norfolk Poultry has promoted three new directors onto its board, as the firm pursues a 20pc growth ambition after three turbulent years.

Jim Lambert, Scott Mckinney and Andy Holt will head up the agriculture, finance and sales operations respectively, with a combined total of 24 years' experience with the company.

The firm's finances have been hit by three years of unprecedented challenges, including the Covid pandemic, rampant cost inflation, labour shortages and bird flu.

But having weathered those storms, the new directors are optimistic for better times ahead, based on maximising markets for their premium free-range meat, expanding the farm base and utilising the extra capacity in the £3m factory extension, finished two years ago

Finance director Mr Mckinney said: "We have seen growth, but we want to see growth with profitability, and it needs to be at the right pace.

"The last few years have not been where we wanted it to be, and there are serious reasons why that has not happened. But we have got a robust business, and we need to return back to profitability, as any healthy business should."

Eastern Daily Press: Free-range turkeys reared by Traditional Norfolk PoultryFree-range turkeys reared by Traditional Norfolk Poultry (Image: Traditional Norfolk Poultry)

Mr Lambert said his priority was to continue expanding the farm base and to "get the momentum back on track again" within the agricultural side of the business.

And sales director Mr Holt said there are plenty of opportunities within a buoyant retail market for premium, high-welfare poultry meat.

He said recent new product innovations included herb-fed chickens, which graze on herbal leys on the farm, with extra herbs in their feed.

"I think there is a lot of confidence to take forward," he said. "There are so many opportunities in retail, because we are so specialised in that we only do 'free range'. People see that as a real plus point.

"There is plenty of capacity in the factory to produce more products, and we can get more farms to produce more turkeys and chickens."

Since it was founded in 1988, TNP has grown into a £50m business processing millions of birds per year, including hundreds of thousands of Christmas turkeys, on 65 farms across East Anglia.

Managing director Mark Gorton said the boardroom changes were a natural next step after he bought out fellow founder David Garner three years ago to become the sole owner of TNP.

"The business has grown a lot and this was the right thing to do to move up another level, to help me by taking some of the pressures and responsibilities away from myself, but also to help these guys progress their careers with the business - appointing from within so everybody here knows what our passions are, what our goals are," he said.