Turkeys for Christmas

turkey dinner

There is no denying that times are definitely hard when you are planning to put two of your pets in the oven for Christmas dinner. The recession changed many things about me, but when those two handfed lovelies hopped out of the boot of my car, trusting in me implicitly as their provider not to lead them astray, and followed me to the shed where they would be slaughtered, my heart hardened a little in a way that can never be undone. But let me back track a little and explain how we got to this point.

It was October, the allotment was on the wind down, the chickens were settled in and I was ripe for a new challenge. We were also tightening our belts and looking for ways to save a few shillings, when I was hit with a brainwave; what about raising turkeys for Christmas? We could buy two and give one to each of our parental homes as Christmas presents, the cost of turkeys as chicks being a fraction of the value of a fully grown hand-reared organic turkey.

John said No; it was coming into the winter months, when nobody wants to be out doors; turkeys die really easy and as he was in charge of all things deceased in our home, he was not opening the door to two more potentially dead things. No.

I decided to ignore him and arranged with my favourite organic farmer to come down and pick out two poults (I had googled the word for turkey chicks so as not to sound like a total novice).

Now I have to admit to you, in October, I was late to the rodeo. Most people get their poults in July to fed up for December, but in actual fact it was to our advantage that we got the birds older as they were much more robust than they would have been as very young chicks, and therefore their survival rate was much higher.

When I got to the farm the first thing I noticed was that these young turkeys were not small, at about seven weeks old these things were already about the size of a fat domesticated cat, and they were already bigger than our hens at home. However they did not know the power of their size and were some of the most timid farmyard animals.

Two were selected (the easiest to be caught), money changed hands (e8 a pop – total mates rates as they were half reared) and they were put in a box in the boot of my car, with a strict reminder to feed them organic feed. Sorted.

Meep. Meep. The cutest noise I heard every time the noise of the car engine subsided.

I got home, backed up the car boot to the side gate, took out the box (meep. meep. meep.) and put it in the backyard inside the chicken hut. It was already dark by the time I got home so I decided to leave them there until the morning.

The next morning awoken by squawking chickens, I went out to get the feed sorted, only to discover two baby turkeys huddling in the corner of the chicken hut while one pushy chicken (its mate was asleep upstairs) strutting in front of them clearly giving a detailed lecture about who was in charge and who was very much not. It was like watching fresh meat in a jail house.

I put down some chicken feed and took the turkeys out of the chicken hutch. I had always intended them to be fed separately; the chickens staying on their organic layers pellets and the turkeys getting some nice fattening organic turkey meal bought in Ballinahown, Offaly (we bought it as we were passing; it is certainly not the closest place to Dublin in which it is stocked). Turns out however that turkey meal must be nicer than layers pellets because that chicken went berserk at the idea that the fresh meat was getting better treatment, and got her mate out of bed to help with the protest. I gave them a little to shut them up – I know, soft touch – but it actually resulted in slightly yellower yokes, so silver lining.

The next thing to come was the sleeping arrangements. In my innocence I assumed, as the cold October nights were creeping in, that two chickens in a roost built for 6 would welcome the extra body heat two young turkeys would bring. Well not on your life. Those two aule boots sat on the roosting bar at the top of the ramp and pecked any turkey that tried to go up. Bii-atches.

My little darlings shivered at the end of the ramp, seven weeks old not knowing what to do (can you already see the dangerous level of attachment to this source-of-future-dinner creeping in?). So I put them in the shed for the night to keep warm. And gave them a tomato each as a treat, assuring them tomorrow would be better.

The next day I went down to Woodies to look for something that would improvise as a turkey roost – not wanting to invest in anything too substantial or expensive for three months – and came up with a small dog kennel. Not perfect, more expensive than I wanted it to be, but would suffice. In hindsight I actually think that dog kennel was one of our best investments. We locked the front door and access was through the removable roof. Each night John rounded up the turkeys (they quickly became too heavy for poor little me to lift, particularly when it was raining, because I am just a delicate l’ickle girl – poor John) and put them into their nice, safe and warm kennel, meaning they were not wasting that much energy heating themselves, which translated into more energy for growing.

Over the next couple of days another problem presented itself; what would we do if one died and the other lived – whose family would we give it to? Or what happened if one was substantially bigger than the other? Not willing to play favourites we got two leg rings; one red and one blue. The Clarkes were getting the red and the Gibboni (plural of Gibbons) the blue – no changes, no swops.

The next seven or eight weeks proceeded with a certain rhythm; the turkeys had free rein of the back garden (yes, they are dirty and poop everywhere they go, but it was winter, so it’s not like we were using the garden for anything anyway) while the mean chickens stayed confined to the chicken-hut. The turkeys soon found and roosted on the old motorbike parked up for the winter in a position it turns out was perfect to catch the mid-day sun. They happily sat together on that for hours like latter day Easy Riders. They grew and grew (while still making that incredibly cute meep noise, a little like roadrunner) until they were too heavy and big to be lifted into the kennel at night.

Then it came. The first week in December. A call from my favourite farmer, to see when I would be bringing them down for slaughter. Two weeks’ time I said, guiltily trying to put it off for as long as I could. I was really enjoying owning Butch and Sundance (that was not their names, they didn’t have names, because that would make them too hard to kill, you are told clearly not to name them, so the names we did not give them were Butch and Sundance. I know – soft touch.)

Some notes about slaughtering;

1. There are all sorts of how-to guides on the internet, there are all sorts of people who trot out nonsense like “just break the neck” “my granny showed me how to do it, I’ll teach you” etc etc. To be honest I find the whole idea really repulsive. It’s one thing to raise animals for meat, that is a fact of the life, but I firmly believe if you are going to do so, it is your duty to ensure not only does that animal have the best possible life, but also that the death is as quick, painless and humane as it is possible to make it. In my opinion the only way to achieve this is getting a professional to do the job. This is no time for rookie mistakes that inflict agony on a poor bird.

2. In addition to specialised training, the government state that you need an abattoir licence to lawfully kill animals on your land. Even Enda doesn’t think this is an area for DIY.

3. It is not ok to wuse-out of killing the turkeys once December arrives. Having fattened them since birth, they will soon become too heavy for their legs to bear their weight (think of horribly obese humans unable to leave their apartments without calling the fire brigade) and this becomes another form of cruelty. Before getting the birds, you need to have considered by whom and when they will be slaughtered (as this is what they are being raised for), you commit to an action plan at the start and so at d-day you man-up and follow through.

4. In addition to slaughtering the animal, I also asked for the innards to be removed, the bird be plucked and made oven ready as it’s a specialised skill, which at the moment, I was not ready to learn.. I am open-minded about a rookie getting involved in this point of the proceedings, as the bird is already dead, but I personally declined, mainly because I thought this bit would be really gross and I am still a city-girl at heart.

So there I sat in the farmer’s kitchen, chatting to the family, eating yummy homemade cake, having a great ole time, while outside two souls I had nurtured were ushered to the next world (guilt laying on my shoulders as a heavy burden). After really a short period of time the farmer returned with two things that more resembled dinner (thank god for mental compartmentalisation or I would have starved that Christmas), and the rare but so-satisfying nod of a job well done. I had a 16 and an 18 pounder – quite the result for a first timer. Feeling very pleased with myself I dropped them off to their new homes (aka kitchens) to be prepared for Christmas.

After Christmas we did a cost analysis on the whole project (showing we still had our leaving-cert accounting skills). The tangible cost (because no real value can be put on the darkening of my soul) was a total of about e40 for both; e16 for the turkeys, e20 for the feed, and a nominal cost of e4 for the use of the kennel which we were sure to use for other projects in the future.  The value of shop bought organic turkeys of equal weight; e160-200. Result: a total success that we would definitely repeat in the future. I may even learn to pluck.

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