Farmer's anger at UK turkey shortage ahead of Christmas

Paul Kelly of Kelly Turkeys with his premium free range birds which are in very high demand

Paul Kelly of Kelly Turkeys with his free range birds being fattened for the Christmas market - Credit: Andrew Partridge

An East Anglian turkey farmer has expressed anger that industry warnings about Christmas labour shortages went unheeded by the government until the 11th hour.

UK ministers stepped in last week to avert a Christmas dinner crisis by allowing 5,500 visas – a move which Paul Kelly, owner of premium turkey firm Kelly Turkeys of Danbury, welcomed.

“For the smaller people like ourselves it’s a great help,” he said. But many of the large operators had been forced to take action early to prevent disaster and had to cut back on turkey production before they were too far committed, he added.

As a result, many UK turkey farms were empty – while the work they would have won has gone to farms in countries like France and Poland which will now pick up the shortfall and supply supermarkets here, he said.

“That’s ridiculous. You have got turkey farms empty here because we didn’t have the workforce to do it.”

Turkey orders at his farm are up about 180% on the same period in 2020, he said. “We have seen massive increases.”

Overall, his orders are three or four times higher than in the pre-Covid era, but he is rearing about the same number of turkeys as last year – meaning that he will simply be sold out sooner.

Most Read

Many of those ordering are existing customers getting in early to ensure their festive mainstay would make it to the table, he said. He was encouraging them to get their orders in — not as a marketing ploy, but simply to make sure they didn’t miss out.

“Of course, we can’t do 300% more turkeys because they aren’t on the farm,” he said. “We’ll be selling out mid-November instead of mid-December.”

Mr Kelly employs about 62 seasonal workers for the Christmas period and his workforce was about nine short – before the latest emergency visas were issued. But he estimated that the costs involved in getting those nine over to the UK would be around £1,000 each, including the visa costs.

Ipswich butcher George Debman said last year he and his fellow independent butchers completely sold out of turkeys. This year, with gathering sizes no longer restricted, he expected a rise in demand for larger birds.

“Our turkey supplier is a small operation, and I have spoken to him recently regarding turkeys and have been assured that there is no problem with supply,” he said. 

“While as a business we do not start taking Christmas orders until after November 5 already I have seen several people wanting to order turkey and told them the policy and assured them that I have no problem in getting turkey from my supplier.

“I get really upset when I keep seeing on the news that turkey farmers are predicting a shortage of supply while in my new role of president of the National Craft Butchers I have spoken to butchers in other parts of the country and the majority see no problem. 

“In fact, supermarkets struggling for supplies is good for every butcher as a recent survey found that at the height of Covid it was butchers up and down the country who kept food on the table and it will be the same at Christmas for myself and every other butcher as we go the extra mile to satisfy the consumer.”