Britain’s poultry producers gather for a gander at geese
Poultry producers congregated in East Anglia for an event which proves that festive food is not just limited to turkeys – there's a growing demand for geese too.
The prospect of providing something a little different for the Christmas dinner table brought a gaggle of farmers to Norfolk for the annual walk of British Goose Producers.
Producers from across the country congregated for the tour of Whews Farm on the edge of Breckland – the traditional home of geese in the UK.
The annual event was hosted by owner Steve Childerhouse who runs Great Grove Poultry on the family farm at Caston near Attleborough.
The 50-acre farm has been home to the Childerhouse family since the 1940s but the poultry production began a mere 20 years ago.
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More than 50 people had the chance to tour the farm and its processing unit to see how 850 geese and 9,000 turkeys are traditionally reared for Christmas.
John Franklin,, chairman of British Goose Producers, joined farmers from as far afield as Devon, Wales, Shropshire, Yorkshire and Ireland.
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He said: 'We only meet twice a year. At the annual walk we get to swap ideas and every year I come away with a new one.
'We want to attract new people into goose production so we have people here who are interested in rearing geese and it's great for people to see how someone started with nothing and built it up.
'A few local farmers have come along as well. It gives people a good idea about what we all do at Christmas and how we cope with it.'
Irish farmer John Kent, from Arklow in County Wicklow said: 'I've been coming to the walks for 10 or more years.
'They are informative and we talk about what's happening with EU regulations and goose production here in the UK.'
Mr Childerhouse, who grew up on the farm, said: 'We are here to learn from each other.
'When I started out I was going to places like this, you live and learn from other people. It's nice to give something back and hopefully someone's learning from us.'
Great Grove Poultry solely serves the Christmas market and prides itself on getting as close to nature as possible during the rearing of its stock.
Mr Childerhouse, 44, said: 'We try to keep it as labour-free as possible. The birds are out 24 hours a day, which is unusual.
'We have a quality bird and we hang them traditionally. That's something which many people can't do – that's our unique selling point.'
Goose, as a Christmas meat, has grown in popularity and demand has risen as people revive the tradition.
Vice-chairman of British Goose Producers, Edward Hegarty, said: 'The demand for geese has grown, it's become mainstream.
'Chefs have got on board and people remember granny cooking goose for Christmas.
'It is the only true seasonal breed now and to get the best product it's free range.'
Mr Hegarty, who runs Norfolk Geese at Pulham Market, said: 'As farmers you don't leave your place until you have reason to.
'This is the only time when we get together as a community and the producers share what issues they have, it's great to help each other out.'
At the walk Mr Childerhouse shared tips on projects which have aided the farm's free range operation including the installation of five-foot electric fences to keep foxes out, two-wheeled wheelbarrows and the installation of lights on the electric fences to ensure they are on.
He said: 'We try to give the birds as natural a life as we can.
'The turkeys love the cover of the woods and the geese are in their comfort zone in the hedge line.
'I don't know how we get more natural.'
Throughout the year the farm is run by Mr Childerhouse and Arthur Hall, who has worked on the farm for about 20 years.
The workforce is bolstered by up to 40 people during December when up to 1,100 birds are processed on site each day.
Mr Hall said: 'We take pride in our birds and if we take pride in them they are going to be nice at the end of the year.'
British Goose Producers
British Goose Producers is a small organisation affiliated to the British Poultry Council.
Its main aims are to promote British geese to consumers, help members to develop the market and stimulate demand.
There are more than 30 members who all provide traditional British geese for the Christmas market.
Some also take advantage of the Michaelmas market in September/October.
The group was established in 1983 when the late John Adlard brought together producers at a time when availability of traditional geese for Christmas was threatened by dwindling supplies.
The annual walk has been an integral part of the group's growth. Each year the walk travels to a different UK producer and last year the group paid a visit to the Bedfordshire farm of chairman John Franklin.
Great Grove Poultry
Great Grove Poultry began life about 20 years ago with four geese.
A sign placed at the top of the drive advertised 'plucked geese', and they soon sold out.
A year later the farm raised and sold eight geese and 20 turkeys, expanding year-on-year to its current total of 850 geese and 9,000 turkeys.
The free-range goslings and poults are all raised for the Christmas market.
The farm takes delivery of day-old goslings and poults on the same day in mid-June, initially housing them in poultry sheds.
The turkeys are moved outside at around 8-10 weeks old where they are left outside 24 hours a day to wander free in woodland and grassland, with access to poultry houses.
About 95pc of the turkeys are hens with 5pc stags – two thirds are bronze and the other third white.
The geese are gradually let outside during the day and are shut up at night for the three weeks until they can also roam free.
The farm has a mix of Norfolk geese and German geese which are fed on whole wheat and grass.
In the lead up to Christmas the birds are processed on site in the farm's own unit.
Around 450 birds are sold from the farm gate with the remainder sold to farm shops and butchers as far ranging as Portsmouth and Northumberland.
Mr Childerhouse optimises his product through the sale of goose feathers and turkey by-products to animal food producers.