Tom Copas’ Berkshire turkeys are so free-range he uses dogs to herd them. Now his flock are famed as the finest birds in the UK
My family has been farming in Cookham, Berkshire, for 120 years. We started off keeping cattle outside the pub, and slowly grew into a huge farming enterprise with fruit, arable, pigs and crops. When my dad decided to leave school at age 16, Grandpa wasn’t impressed so he bought him 150 turkeys to keep him busy and out of mischief. He reared them on the farm with help of farm workers and processed them at Christmas, going door to door in the village to sell them, and the business grew from there.
Our turkeys’ welfare is our highest priority. They are in small flocks of about 1,500-2,000 birds. We buy them from UK hatcheries at the end of May when they are a day old. For the first two weeks, they are kept warm under brooders, with a team of three checking them constantly. As they get bigger and stronger, we let them out into the shed, gradually introducing natural light and cold to get them hardy and used to the outdoors.
From six weeks, they are in natural light, so they eat and put on weight naturally, free to range outside during the day and bedded up on fresh hay at night. We make sure they have lots of different places to forage – game cover (sunflowers, mustard, sorghum), cherry orchards and perennial crops – long grasses and natural seeds to peck at and keep them entertained. Turkeys are originally forest creatures, always checking things out – it’s important that they are never bored or frustrated.
The birds are let out first thing in the morning, and put away every night to protect them from predators – foxes mostly. We have border collies to herd the turkeys – Pip and her daughter Kes. Kes is a third-generation turkey dog. Unlike chickens, turkeys respond well to being herded, much like geese and sheep. It all started when my dad gave his farm manager some money for wellies and a dog. He got a collie called Shep, and he worked much better than a couple of blokes, so he trained him up in the off season.
We do everything we can to keep the turkeys calm, and also to prepare them for processing. It’s a hectic time with lots of activity and people about, and we don’t want them to get stressed out and start jumping on each other. They have special training for fireworks so they don’t get spooked and we play the radio to get them used to people talking.
Traditionally, turkeys are slaughtered at 22 weeks but we grow ours to 26 weeks – we want them to reach their full maturity weight naturally. We have 16-20 different breeds to be able to reach the ½ kilo weight categories turkeys are sold in.
We process all the turkeys ourselves on the farm, and ship to wholesalers and retailers all across the UK – about 40,000 each year. Everything we do plays into our end product. We dry-pluck the birds by hand, then they are hung for 2 weeks in the same way you hang game, beef and lamb. This improves the texture and flavour of the meat. Then we process them into an oven-ready product, greaseproof packed with rosemary and giblets, a cooking timer and cooking instructions. Our goal is to make it as easy as possible for our customers – you don’t have to be scared of our turkeys! Because our birds reach full maturity and beyond, they develop a fat layer that means they are self-basting. All you need is salt and pepper.
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