Around December 9 last year, Suffolk turkey farmer Chris Mobbs was hovering by the phone waiting for the usual last dash of orders.

For three or four days in mid-December his phone is usually red-hot with calls - including from farmer friends who've run short of turkeys to fulfil their own orders or butchers putting in a few last-minute requests.

But Christmas 2022 was different.  "Last year, the phone never rang," he said. "I spoke to another farmer down in Essex who I know very, very well. He said: 'It's just gone completely dead.'"

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He and his fellow farm gate turkey producers were flummoxed.

They had just been through bird flu hell, but they could at least console themselves that following a mass UK cull of millions of birds to contain the disease - much of it centred on this region - there was now a shortage of Christmas turkeys.

That meant for those producers in Suffolk, Essex and Norfolk who made it through the crisis unscathed, there should have been some light at the end of a very dark tunnel.

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"There was a lot of talk about shortages and people were panicking," explained Chris.

His remote farm at Cratfield, near Halesworth, was one of the "lucky" ones as his birds didn't contract the dreaded disease.

But he was caught in the crosshairs of a massive outbreak - stuck within three separate exclusion zones put in place because of outbreaks at other nearby farms. He faced a "nightmare" of regulations with strict movement restrictions in place.

"We were locked down from the middle of October through until Christmas," he said. "Every 24 hours we had to have a new movement order from the Ministry - even though they (the birds) were only moving to our plucking shed."

Suffolk was at the epicentre of the crisis in October - and Norfolk and parts of Essex followed as the disease ripped through the region with terrifying speed.

But despite the ensuing huge shortages in home-reared festive turkeys, producers faced what they describe as a "perfect storm".

Publicity about the shortages meant consumers either bought frozen turkeys or plumped for beef or pork roasts instead of traditional turkeys.

After two Christmases in lockdown, those that could afford it were choosing to travel abroad. Meanwhile many householders who remained at home were counting the pennies as raging inflation plunged the UK into a cost-of-living crisis.

"The market absolutely bombed - we all ended up putting birds in the freezer," said Chris. "I think people were being scared off early on."

The hell of last year has led to a mass exodus of smaller and larger producers in 2023. They have simply decided that rearing birds is too risky and have decided to quit, retire - or look for safer options.

"We have been impacted - everyone has been impacted," said Chris.

Having been in the industry his entire adult life, Chris couldn't imagine doing anything else so he has dug in for the long haul.

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He has scaled back his operation this year by about 200 to 300 birds and reared just over 3,000. Orders are looking "reasonable" and a new younger generation of butchers are now entering the trade and are keen to buy, he said.

Turkey farmers like him are now feeling cautiously optimistic for this year's festive sales.

Fears of a new outbreak of avian influenza have not - as yet at least - materialised. Producers have been very, very careful and biosecurity levels are high.

At the same time, consumers are regaining their appetite for Christmas turkeys – and going for bigger birds – according to Paul Kelly, managing director of Kelly Turkeys, at Danbury in Essex, who says his orders are up 7% this year.

“The combination of avian influenza and the end of Covid restrictions amounted to a ‘perfect storm’ in the market last year,” he said.

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“Not only did the number of avian flu outbreaks restrict the supply of turkeys but for the first time for several years the freedom from travel restrictions allowed many families to spend Christmas away from home and so not buy the traditional turkey.

“We are finding demand for farm gate turkeys and online orders strong – many customers are going for 5, 6 or 7 kg turkeys rather than smaller ones.

"Oddly, this is also the case with demand for our turkeys for Thanksgiving in the USA where we are gradually expanding our business in Virginia.”

With a number of large and small turkey farmers opting out of production this year some top turkey businesses in the region such as Kelly Turkeys and Traditional Norfolk Poultry are expanding to meet the shortfall.

Kelly Turkeys says it is producing 30% more birds - even though lack of labour continues to be a problem in the industry and disease an ever-present threat.

Paul is hopeful the region will remain free from the disease this autumn. He said there was now evidence of natural immunity among the wild bird population and producers were adopting stricter biosecurity to keep their flocks protected.

Mark Gorton is managing director of Traditional Norfolk Poultry - which owns 65 sites across the region including in Suffolk and Essex - and is also optimistic for this season.

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He rears thousands of turkeys and chickens for supermarkets and, like Kelly Turkeys, has upped production despite some of his sites remaining closed this year.

"We are doing probably 20% to 25% more than last year," he said.

At the height of last year's bird flu epidemic around eight or nine of his sites were shut down because of bird flu.

The subsequent sales slump in the run-up to last Christmas was a result of many factors converging, he believed.

"It's hard to imagine how it could be any worse. With the cost of living criss and bird flu it was the perfect storm and it was a complete and utter disaster," said Mark.

"What happened was the media and TV were covering the bird flu and we were having the disaster of losing millions of birds so of course the general public thought: 'What am I going to do?' and either went out very early and bought frozen turkey or bought something else like beef or pork.

"Sales went flat. It didn't affect us because ours are all pre-sold."

After last year's disaster, Mark had to decide whether to press ahead with costly and labour-intensive deep-cleans in line with stringent government rules or leave affected sheds fallow for a year.

"It's always in the back of our minds. We won't ever forget it and it affects the decisions that you make," he said of the crisis.

But he added: "At the end of the day, turkey farming and chicken farming is my business."

In around three quarters of cases he has decided to bite the bullet - but some older sheds he has left empty as the deep-clean option was impracticable.

"The thing is with bird flu and AI and notifiable disease per se is it doesn't just stop when your birds are dead. Your farm is under restrictions and you have to make the decision on whether to leave the farm empty for a year or spend a fortune cleaning it," he explained.

In the industry as a whole there have been many casualties, with a number of farmers choosing to walk away from the industry, he said.

"Lots of people said we are not going to do it any more. There are a lot less people - but we are busy. We started our campaign last week and turkeys are coming in really nice - they have grown really well, " he said.

Things have changed this year. Mark is processing birds slightly earlier to reduce risk - although he has continued to keep them free range. 

"In four weeks' time it will be done and dusted and probably in a couple of weeks' time the bulk will be done," he said.

"We are all taking one day at a time and keeping everything crossed."

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* Chris and Judith Mobbs will be holding an Autumn Farm Open Afternoon on their farm on Sunday, November 19, from noon to 4pm.

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Visitors to the free event will be able to see turkeys ranging in his meadows and find out more about how they look after them, walk in our wild flower meadows, taste some traditionally reared turkey and sample recipes cooked on woodfires at Fire and Feast - a new camping and events farm diversification set up by the couple.

They can enjoy complimentary tea and coffee, turkey and pork hotdogs and turkey and vegetable soup. Dogs are welcome on a lead.

Donations for refreshments will go to farm charity RABI.

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The event will be held at PA Mobbs and Sons and Fire and Feast Suffolk, Whitehouse Farm, Cratfield. IP19 0QF. For more details, phone 01986 798340 or visit or