Christmas turkey shortage warning as bird flu wipes out half of all Britain's free-range stock

Christmas turkey shortage warning as bird flu wipes out half of all Britain's free-range stock - Tim Clarke for The Telegraph
Christmas turkey shortage warning as bird flu wipes out half of all Britain's free-range stock - Tim Clarke for The Telegraph

Shoppers have been warned of a Christmas turkey shortage as half the country's free-range birds have been culled because of avian flu.

Poultry farmers told MPs yesterday that consumers will face a "big, big shortage" of free-range turkeys after the UK population was decimated by the worst ever outbreak of bird flu.

Richard Griffiths, chief executive of the British Poultry Council, told the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee: "This year is the worst bird flu outbreak that we have seen, ever.

"The usual number of free-range turkeys for Christmas is about 1.2 million to 1.3 million. We have seen around 600,000 of those free-range birds being directly affected. Half of free range.

"The total UK production of turkeys is 8.5 million to nine million birds for Christmas. Of those that are Christmas birds, probably just over a million have been culled or died from bird flu."

The avian flu epidemic - which has also affected the US and Europe - has already forced UK supermarkets to limit the number of eggs customers can buy.

Asked what that might mean for prices this Christmas, Mr Griffiths said "I don't know. That's really a question for retailers. We don't know how the gaps within retail are going to be filled at this point."

The Government recently ordered all poultry and captive birds to be kept indoors to limit the spread of the disease.

Free range turkeys are more likely to catch avian flu because they have access to areas that may have been visited by wild birds which carry the virus.

Poultry farmer Paul Kelly, of Kelly Turkeys, told the committee: "I don't think UK turkey prices will be going up. I think it will just be a supply issue rather than the prices being hiked.

"But there will be a big, big shortage of British free range turkeys on the shelves this year."

Some 1.6 million birds have been culled as of November 20 directly because of bird flu on farms, Mr Griffiths told the committee, with around 36 per cent of poultry farms affected by the outbreak.

Mr Kelly said the outbreak had been "devastating" for farmers with some so traumatised by the loss of their flocks they were considering quitting the turkey business next year.

He said: "The challenge for a lot of the smaller seasonal producers that produce Christmas poultry is they have their Christmas flock on their farm and when the turkeys are infected they all die within four days.

"To give you an example, we had one farmer with 9,500 (birds). The first infection was on Thursday evening, 20 mortality, and by Monday lunchtime they were all dead."

Mr Kelly said: "We're a small business and we've lost £1.2 million this year - just turkeys that have died.

"Luckily we're going to get through to next year but ... can we take the risk to grow Christmas poultry based on what we've seen this year? We couldn't. And had I known what I know now we would not have grown the turkeys we did.

"Looking to next year, I don't want to put the farm at risk.

"Without a vaccine in place or a compensation scheme that is fit for purpose, I don't know whether we'd have the confidence to grow Christmas poultry next year."

Mr Griffiths added: "This year the seasonal producers have been so badly affected. I can see many of those taking a good hard look at whether they want to be in Christmas poultry."