UK heading for 'big, big shortages' of turkeys at Christmas after 'worst-ever bird flu outbreak'

29 November 2022, 23:57 | Updated: 30 November 2022, 00:01

Turkeys could be in short supply this Christmas
Turkeys could be in short supply this Christmas. Picture: Getty/Alamy

By Kit Heren

British people could see "big, big shortages" of turkeys over Christmas because of the country's worst-ever bird flu outbreak, industry experts have warned.

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Half of the UK's stock of free range turkeys have fallen victim to the disease this year, or been culled to stop its spread, and one in nine of the total have been lost.

Some farmers saw their whole flocks of turkeys, geese and ducks wiped out in just a few days, in a stark illustration of the strength of the disease.

The government recently told farmers of all poultry and captive birds in England to keep their flocks indoors to help halt the spread of the virus.

Turkeys on a farm in Cheshire
Turkeys on a farm in Cheshire. Picture: Getty

Supermarkets are now expected to import more turkeys from abroad, with countries like Poland set to help meet the shortfall in the UK - although prices have skyrocketed, potentially making Christmas even more expensive for most people. 

The Commons food and farming committee, Efra, which is looking into the impact of bird flu on farmers, heard about the impact of the bird flu outbreak on Tuesday.

Chief executive of the British Poultry Council, Richard Griffiths, told the 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.

Turkeys have to be kept inside to slow the spread of the flu
Turkeys have to be kept inside to slow the spread of the flu. Picture: Getty

"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."

Asked about the impact on prices from imported turkeys, he said: "That is a question for retailers. We do not know how the gaps within retail are going to be filled."

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MPs heard about the outbreak's huge impact on individual farmers.

Paul Kelly, of Kelly Turkeys in Essex, said: ‘It has been devastating. As a hatchery business we supply farmers throughout the country, so I get first-hand experience of when they get an infected premises.

Paul Kelly inspecting turkeys on his farm
Paul Kelly inspecting turkeys on his farm. Picture: Alamy

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

"At the moment, small independent seasonal producers are being wiped out.

He added: ‘There will be a big, big shortage of British free range turkeys on shelves. Spot prices for imported turkey have doubled. Northern Europe has suffered the same problem as we have."

'Farmers can't keep producing food well below the cost of production.'

Mr Kelly said many producers might drop out of the business, given the risks involved.

He said: "We are a small business and we have lost £1.2million. Luckily we are going to get through this year. Going into next year, I don’t want to put the farm at risk.

"Without a vaccine or compensation scheme that is fit for purpose, I don’t know whether a lot of producers will grow Christmas turkeys next year."

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The UK’s chief veterinary officer, Christine Middlemiss, said that it was the first time that the virus had survived in the wild for one winter, then the summer, then the following winter.

She told the committee: "This strain is very infectious...

"A teaspoon full of infectious material can create thousands of infectious doses. It has been devastating."