The Turkeys that Dodged Christmas

It’s not the best time of year to be a turkey – but what happens to the birds (such as Tommy and Miss McFeathers) that make a brave bid for freedom?

More than 10 million turkeys are sold in the UK over Christmas, and 76 per cent of us will be tucking into one on Christmas Day. Britain’s biggest turkey producer, Bernard Matthews, reportedly processes 50,000 every day in the runup to the festivities.

But occasionally a plucky bird stages a great escape. Wendy Valentine is the founder of Hillside Animal Sanctuary in Frettenham, Norwich – currently home to 20 such birds.

‘Some [turkeys] have been found by the road. They didn’t exactly drop off a lorry, but managed to escape from somewhere,’ she says. ‘We have also seen people who ordered their Christmas turkey from the farmer and told him that they want it alive, not dead, then brought it to us at the sanctuary. We even had people who worked at Bernard Matthews and had a favourite turkey – they are really friendly – who asked us if we would take them in.’

While the RSPCA says it doesn’t have data on the number of turkeys who escape the countdown to Christmas, it did reveal that the majority of the 17 million turkeys reared in this country annually are kept in conditions that have caused concern. This makes stories of high-profile turkey break-outs especially heartening.

Last December, a turkey that escaped from a farm in Worcester and ran around a housing estate was spared for Christmas. Nicknamed Tommy, he was rehomed by the RSPCA at a bird sanctuary.

Another turkey also escaped the oven last Christmas, when it was befriended by a peacock. Known as Miss McFeathers, the turkey had been delivered to a farm shop in Scotland, where she was bullied by the other turkeys. However, she made friends with Pendragon the peacock, and staff could not bear for her to suffer the usual fate, so she was spared and now roams free on the Hopetoun Estate in Linlithgow, West Lothian.

A third turkey lived to see last Christmas after making a bid for freedom out the back door of Swillington Farm’s slaughterhouse in West Yorkshire. The bird, nicknamed Jessica after Yorkshire Olympian Jessica Ennis, spent more than four hours hiding in a tree. Farm workers then started a Twitter poll, asking people to vote on whether the Norfolk Black should be spared. When 75 per cent voted in favour of saving Jessica, she joined the farm’s brood of pets.

In 2002 a turkey fell off the back of a lorry on the way to the slaughterhouse in Preston, Lancashire. Workers picked it up, nicknamed it Lurkey, and contacted the RSPCA , who took him to the vet for a check-up. He was then found a new home (where he wouldn’t be eaten).

And when, in 2009, an escaped turkey was found a few days before Christmas – on the M25 near Brentwood, Essex – it was taken to an animal hospital.

Hillside Animal Sanctuary has been taking in turkeys such as these since 1995. ‘I have had turkeys around for quite a long time and many of them are rescued,’ Wendy confirms. ‘It’s quite a nice feeling that, even though you can’t save them all, you can save one or two. They are just lovely, affectionate birds.’

And while other turkeys across the country are being fattened up, those at the sanctuary (home to some 2,000 animals in total) are actually on diets.

‘We try to keep their weight down a bit because they put it on so quickly and it’s not good for their legs,’ Wendy explains. ‘We do try to keep them on the leaner side and not fatten them up. We just want them to live a longer life.’

So a turkey is for life, then, not just for Christmas (dinner).

Hillside Animal Sanctuary, Hall Lane, Frettenham, Norwich: 01603-736200, www.hillside.org.uk


DID YOU KNOW?

  • Turkey became a Christmas staple only relatively recently. The bird was a luxury until the 1950s when it became more widely available.
  • Before then, traditional Christmas fare included roast swan, pheasant and peacock. A special treat was a roast boar’s head decorated with holly and fruit.
  • In the wild, turkeys roost in trees, can fly at up to 50mph, run at about 25mph and live for around 10 years.
  • The RSPCA says Freedom Food-labelled turkeys will be available in most major supermarkets this Christmas including Aldi, Asda, The Co-operative, Lidl, Sainsbury’s and Tesco. www.freedomfood.co.uk/wheretobuy
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