Seeking something special for Christmas dinner? Seasonal auctions put East Anglia’s finest poultry up for public bids

Norfolk turkeys. Picture: Sonya Duncan

Norfolk turkeys. Picture: Sonya Duncan - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2016

Poultry auctions will take place around the region in the run-up to Christmas, offering public bidders the chance to snap up rare breeds, bargain turkeys – and perhaps something a bit different for the biggest meal of the year. CHRIS HILL reports.

The Keys Christmas poultry sale in Aylsham in 2015. Picture: MARK BULLIMORE

The Keys Christmas poultry sale in Aylsham in 2015. Picture: MARK BULLIMORE

It's simple enough to wander down the supermarket's freezer aisle to pick up the centre-piece for your family's Christmas dinner table.

But if you're searching for a fresh and traditionally-reared turkey, chicken or goose – and if you're prepared to hold your nerve in a public auction – you could land a bargain, a prize-winner, or even a breed you'd never considered.

Festive poultry sales will be held around the region in the run-up to Christmas, offering buyers the chance to indulge in the entertainment of a live auction, and take home one of East Anglia's finest farming products.

SWAFFHAM: Auctioneer Fabian Eagle will oversee Swaffham Poultry Market's Christmas poultry auction at the town's racetrack at 11am on Saturday December 17, and at Eldon Farm in Holywell Row, near Mildenhall, at 10.45am on Wednesday, December 21.

The Keys Christmas poultry sale in Aylsham in 2015. Picture: MARK BULLIMORE

The Keys Christmas poultry sale in Aylsham in 2015. Picture: MARK BULLIMORE

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He said he had noticed a change in bidders' buying habits in recent years – with large cockerels becoming more popular among the bidding public in recent years, taking some of the traditional turkey's market share.

Of around 900 lots booked between the two sales, he said 50pc would be turkeys, 30pc cockerels and 20pc geese and ducks.

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'Five years ago it would have been 15pc cockerels,' he said. 'They have nicked a bit of the turkey market. That would have been 60pc before, and geese have slipped a bit too.

'People are coming here trying to buy the smallest turkey and the biggest cockerel. I have only noticed it over the last couple of years.

James Graham of Peele's Norfolk Black Turkeys. Picture: Matthew Usher.

James Graham of Peele's Norfolk Black Turkeys. Picture: Matthew Usher.

'Those who have tasted the difference have realised there is more flavour and texture in a cockerel because it has got more maturity than a turkey of the same weight.

'There is not much price difference. But if you gave me a choice and said you can have a 14lb cockerel or a 14lb turkey – unless it was a proper Norfolk Black I might waver, but if it was a standard turkey I would take the cockerel every time.'

Mr Eagle said the preventative measures introduced by the government last week to reduce the risk of a bird flu outbreak, including a requirement for all poultry to be housed indoors, had no effect on the supplies of birds to the markets, or on the live poultry sales at Swaffham, which will resume for the New Year on January 18.

'This is just a practical measure which must not be blown out of proportion,' he said. 'It does not stop you from moving your poultry or going to a show. 'If we don't have sales, the stock will build up to a point where people have not got the capacity to keep them, and then you get welfare issues.'

AYLSHAM: More than 300 turkeys, geese, chickens and ducks from local producers will be auctioned in Aylsham from 11am on Monday, December 19, as part of a festive tradition which has taken place in every year of the Queen's reign.

Keys' annual Christmas poultry sale, taking place next week, dates back to 1953, when Geoffrey Key held the first Christmas sale just months after the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

It has taken place at the firm's Aylsham saleground in every year of the Queen's reign, and is traditionally Keys' last sale of the year.

Hundreds of people are expected to descend on the town to bid for the birds – mostly private individuals there to buy the main attraction for their Christmas lunch.

Keys director Kevin Lines said: 'We love the Christmas poultry sale, as it really marks the start of the festive season for us – and for the many, many people who come to the sale to buy the bird which will be on their Christmas Day table.

'It is really nice to bring together local producers and local consumers, especially in these days when people want to know where their food has come from. It remains very popular with farmers and producers, as well as those who come to bid.

'Our business has been transformed in recent years by innovations such as online bidding, but it is good to see some traditions living on and remaining very popular.'

Viewing of the birds on offer starts at 9am on the morning of the sale.

NORWICH: The annual Christmas poultry sale at Norwich Livestock Market on Hall Road takes place from 6.30pm on Wednesday, December 21, with viewings from 5pm.

The majority of the 500 lots of poultry and game presented for sale will have been produced within a 25-mile radius.

Market shareholder Penelope Lucas said: 'All our local producers are busy plucking for the big event. Norwich Livestock Market will have both long-legged and oven-ready turkeys, chickens and a mixture of ducks and geese as well.

'It is a local place for the people of the city of Norwich to get their Christmas poultry – and the country comes to them.

'We get people here who never go to an auction. But they will brave it for the possibility of getting something fresh and local. The prices are really reasonable in comparison with the butchers. If the bidding is slow you can grab yourself a real bargain.

'I think it will be a bumper trade. As the years go by people are more and more fixated by cooking shows and with having something fresh and local. I think people are more keen to experiment now. Whereas in the past they might have had a turkey they might now have goose if there is goose available.

'There is definitely a trend away from turkey as people are looking at alternatives.'

DISS: The annual Christmas Poultry Show and Sale at Diss Auction Rooms is on Thursday December 22, with public viewing from 4pm and the sale starting at 5pm.

Jenna Goodall Browne, rural business associate at TW Gaze, the firm which runs the event, said: 'We have around 250 birds for sale including the usual turkeys, chickens, geese and ducks, and this year we will also have some guinea fowl on sale for the first time to add a bit of variety.

'All the birds are from local farmers. Some of our farming families have been putting their birds into our sale for many years. The birds are sold as close to Christmas as possible so that they are fresh and ready for the Christmas dinner table.

'Before the birds are put forward for sale they are all entered into our show and are judged, rosettes are given for each class. Of course everyone wants the champion turkey for their Christmas dinner, so a premium is often paid for the best bird of the show.'

This year's judge is Christopher Mobbs, a third-generation poultry producer from Whitehouse Farm in Cratfield, near Halesworth.

Turkey breeds at the sale include Bronze, Norfolk Black, White, Lavender, Narragansette and Bourbon Red.


Among the farms working around the clock to get birds ready for sale is Peele's Norfolk Black Turkeys, based at Thuxton near Dereham.

The business is run by James Graham – the fourth generation of his family to have dedicated themselves to the preservation of the Norfolk Black breed, which was saved from extinction in the 1950s by his grandfather Frank Peele.

About 1,500 turkeys will be supplied this year, including some which will be sold through the TW Gaze sale at Diss. A team of two dozen seasonal workers, including fiends and family, has drafted in to help clean and pluck the birds before they are hung in the cold store.

But Mr Graham said because the slow-grown turkeys are reared naturally, weather conditions earlier in the year had left him with a shortfall of larger birds.

'We are missing a weight range,' he said. 'We didn't have enough dry weather in the beginning of spring so we lost three weeks of hatching, and now we have not got as many big birds as we had hoped for.

'If the eggs are not laid in early spring we don't get the bigger birds. Because I want them to grow naturally, and they are not housed with artificial temperatures. They have to wait until the temperature is warm enough.

'The big birds are not there, and some birds we won't be killing because they are not finished. They are the lucky ones – they have been saved, and will go into our breeding programme for the next year.'

Mr Graham, a member of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, said it was important to find a commercial market in order to preserve breeds such as the Norfolk Black.

'It is all well and good going around poultry tents in the summer and looking at a turkey in a cage and saying how pretty it is,' he said. 'But I have found that over the years a lot of rare breeds have become very in-bred. The gene pool is not wide enough and the only way to do that is to have a commercial side to it – and that means you need to eat the damn things.

'At the end of the day if you want something a bit special you need to have something that's a bit different and that is what we still offer. It is a challenging thing to do because the weather dictates how well the birds will fatten and finish.'

The National Farmers' Union (NF) has introduced an online 'turkey finder' to help shoppers find local producers of fresh local turkeys. Click here for details.

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