Will British turkeys be in short supply this Christmas?
- Credit: Gregg Brown
Two months ago, a looming catastrophe caused by festive worker shortages was keeping poultry farmer Mark Gorton awake at night.
Tonight it will be bird flu as the seasonal threat hovers over the UK and tight restrictions are in place UK-wide.
That fear will hang over him until the last of his free range flocks – scattered outdoors across 65 farms in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex – is brought inside on December 18 to be slaughtered for the Christmas market.
It will then be replaced by more nightmares about how to find workers to process his slow-maturing birds for the 2022 Christmas season.
Based in Shropham, near Attleborough, Traditional Norfolk Poultry (TNP) provides hundreds of thousands of premium, free-range turkeys for the festive market. In the weeks leading up to this Christmas, his 300-strong workforce will be bolstered by 400 festive poultry workers gathered from across Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine by Concordia and AG Recruitment – two of just four agencies tasked with bringing in foreign nationals to work in the UK under a temporary visa scheme introduced just two months ago.
The visa – which runs out on December 31 – was hastily introduced on September 25 after furious farmers warned there would be precious few British-grown turkeys to grace the UK’s festive dinner table this Christmas unless the government acted and gave it some workers to plug the growing gaps.
Mark is now breathing a sigh of relief that he will make it through December with enough workers to get him across the festive finishing line – but the government has taken an ad hoc approach and he has no idea yet whether the scheme will be revived next year.
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However, top of his concerns right now is avian influenza. As a free range producer he can’t feasibly bring his flocks inside – as they would lose their premium status – until or unless ordered to do so by the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
On November 3, it declared an Avian Influenza Prevention Zone (AIPZ) across the whole of Great Britain, but the strict biosecurity measures this involves – such as feeding and watering birds under cover – was already in place across TNP farms, says Mark, its managing director.
Nevertheless, the threat is constant as migrating wild birds can bring the disease in at any point.
On November 11, H5N1 was found in birds at a premises at Kirby Cross near Frinton-on-Sea – bringing it to Essex following cases in other parts of the country. This was confirmed as highly pathogenic H5N1 strain and birds in the affected flock slaughtered while a temporary control zone was placed around the premises.
Farmers live with risk when choosing what crop to grow and how many animals to rear. They know they may face disease and weather issues – making every season a gamble. And bird flu can still hit an outdoors flock even when every precaution has been taken and properly observed.
But what angers Mark is the recruitment issue. As he sees it, all that the government’s new post-Brexit rules are doing in this case is exporting the work because the labour can’t be brought in – only to import the finished product. Thus a food import is created out of what was a home-grown product. At the same time, demand for British turkeys is growing. It means many consumers will have to buy an inferior imported product produced to a lower standard, he argues.
“It just doesn’t make any sense. We have got all these farms and all these factories to make these products,” he says. “It makes me really angry because we have all built our businesses and we have literally had the rug pulled from under us.”
Despite many appeals, it hasn’t been possible to source UK labour for his seasonal workforce, he says. About a quarter of his permanent staff is British while the rest is European Union with Settled Status. “There’s nobody out there,” he says. “Nobody has ever said: ‘I don’t want to employ any English people’ but the simple facts of life are they aren’t there. I have not had a single English person who’s applied for a job.”
The extra workers under the temporary scheme have now arrived at TNP and the slaughtering and processing of birds began this week. But overall across the sector, there will be fewer British turkeys this Christmas.
“Yes, we’ve been given a visa, and yes, it’s basically saved the day at the 11th hour,” he says.
Even so, turkey farmers are very frustrated that while fruit and vegetable growers are benefiting from a new Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) allowing in seasonal workers to plant and pick their crops, they have been treated differently. Before Brexit, workers from eastern Europe in particular would come over seasonally, working through the season from soft fruit picking to vegetable picking up to pumpkin picking
in the autumn then seamlessly move into turkey processing.
Now they are so tightly controlled they have to go back home only to return under a different scheme.
“It makes us all so angry because you can see what’s happening. It just doesn’t make any sense. We have got all these farms and all these factories to make these products.”
By the time the recruitment crisis emerged in the summer, premium producers like TNP had already thrown the dice and were well into fattening their birds. They start with their day-old poults in April-May while the mass producers start in August-September.
It meant very large-scale producers cut back their volumes because of fears that they wouldn’t have the workforce to process them. That meant farms which normally would have been filling up with birds in the summer didn’t do so at the same rate.
The British Poultry Council (BPC) – the trade body for the industry – has said the easing of workforce pressures means that the industry will now get “over the line” – even if choice is more restricted this Christmas.
BPC chief executive Richard Griffiths said there will a bird for “everyone who wants one”.
“We’ve been able to streamline products and reduce the variety, so that helps with the overall volume,” he said.
However, Mark says they will be in short supply.
“There will be less British turkeys on the market this year – I’m 100% sure,” he predicts.
“The big companies cut back their numbers because they were concerned they weren’t going to get any labour – the government only announced this visa very late in the day.”
The end result was fewer UK turkeys, he says.
“It doesn’t make any economic sense, it doesn’t make any moral sense.”