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Video: Walters Turkeys have been supplying traditional Christmas birds to families across West Berkshire and the rest of the UK for 50 years

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Walters Turkeys has been supplying turkeys for Christmas since the 1970s.

Bower Farm on the Berkshire Downs is part of the Yattendon Estates and home to the Walters family, who this year celebrate 50 years rearing traditional Christmas turkeys, which are despatched to customers across the UK.

Phillip and Julia Walters both came from farming families and started their turkey business in 1971, when they bought 500 birds.

Walters Turkeys
Walters Turkeys

Today there are nearly 10,000 turkeys on the farm and, while Phillip and Julia are still very much hands-on, the day-to-day running of the business is now carried out by their son Edward with help from sister Helen, and Edward's wife Kate.

The Walters' other son George also pitches in at busy times, particularly in the run up to Christmas.

We visited the farm in early November, just before some turkeys were being prepared for Thanksgiving.

Edward Walters
Edward Walters

Edward said: "We have about 350 turkeys that are a couple of weeks older than the Christmas ones and they will be prepared for Thanksgiving."

Although there are understandably less orders for Thanksgiving turkeys, as it is a US tradition, Edward said that they were inundated with orders last year.

"Because of the pandemic more people were celebrating at home, and because they couldn't travel, US citizens who might usually go home for the Thanksgiving holiday were stuck in the UK."

It is also good preparation for the very busy few weeks in the run up to Christmas.

A young Helen Walters meets the turkeys
A young Helen Walters meets the turkeys

Helen said: "It's a way of getting up to speed for the Christmas rush and ironing out any glitches in the process."

Helen and Kate mainly run the office and admin side of things, making sure that the website is up to date and the online order process is working properly.

Helen said: "Many people order online these days and we start updating the site in September, ready for when people start thinking about getting their turkey."

Walters Turkeys
Walters Turkeys

As we walk through the field where the turkeys are wandering around the noise is constant, although surprisingly less intrusive than I imagined.

"You don't really notice," said Kate. "Although sometimes they all have a chat at the same time and the noise levels go up. But at night they're completely silent."

Preparing turkeys for the Christmas market is quite a balancing act.

Kate, Edward and Helen at Walters Turkeys
Kate, Edward and Helen at Walters Turkeys

The chicks are bought in in late May - "they're tiny, you can hold a handful of them at a time" - when they are kept indoors and in the warmth to help them grow.

"We bring them out in September," says Kate. "We feed them once a day in the morning and then let them roam around the field, until it starts to get dark and we round them up to go to bed."

Rounding up nearly 10,000 turkeys can be quite a task and usually takes about 45 minutes.

"They seem to sense that it's 'bed time' and quite happily go in to sleep – but occasionally, just like children I suppose, they play up and can give us the round around."

Walters Turkeys
Walters Turkeys

It's a particularly crisp, sunny autumn day in early November when we visit and the turkeys are curious to see who the visitors are.

They follow us as we walk through the field, but always keep a respectful distance. I felt as if we were playing Grandmother's Footsteps – whenever I stopped and turned around the turkeys would all stand still and talk among themselves. It is quite a comical sight.

"The most important thing is making sure the fields are fox-proof," says Kate. "And we do that by just building high fences – fox's don't jump!"

Walter Turkeys pig
Walter Turkeys pig

The farm isn't just about turkeys, there are also cattle, sheep and pigs at various times of the year.

In fact one of the pigs chose the moment we were walking past to jump out of her sty and run off to have a chat with a couple of horses grazing in the next field – she was surprisingly agile, but once she'd caught up on the days news with the other animals, she happily trotted back to her home.

The family also cultivate some of the fields to grow the barley and oats that feeds the turkeys.

"It's important to us to maintain our traditional home grown approach," says Helen. "Our customers know that the turkeys are free range and have been responsibly reared.

Feeding is an important part of the process – obviously, you might say – but it's important that they get the balance right.

Edward explains that the turkeys are kept in groups according to their weight.

"People want different sized turkeys and we have to make sure we can meet demand. The most popular weight is probably around 7kg, but some of them go up to 11kg.

A white turkey from the early days
A white turkey from the early days

"We keep them in separate groups so that we can easily provide each of them with the right balance of food and water to achieve the best weight.

While most of the turkeys are female, there are a few stags – male – turkeys. The family explain that the meat is exactly the same now, although historically the male birds were a bit tougher.

"The industry has learned so much about how to look after the turkeys and the best diet for them, you can't actually tell the difference – although you do get more dark meat with a stag."

Walters Turkeys
Walters Turkeys

Similarly, although the Walters supply white turkeys, they don't have so many.

"Historically they were the fashionable birds to have, because the meat was lighter, but again there is hardly any difference in the texture nowadays, but some people still like them so we keep a few."

I was curious to know if the turkey feathers could be put to use for anything?

"There is one person who comes and takes a few bags away for their arrows – they practice archery and like to refresh their quills each year. And another lady takes some for craft classes with children. But mainly we use them for bedding for the cattle – it's like they have their own duvets, nice and warm to lie on, so they do serve a purpose."

As we get closer to Christmas it will be all hands on deck, although like many businesses that rely on seasonal manual labour, the Walters say there is a shortage of people available to work and it will mean longer hours for them.

"It's pretty manic in the two to three weeks leading up to Christmas," says Helen. "We just have to put our heads down and keep going. It's very much a team effort from the farm workers to the delivery drivers, everybody has their part to play."

Walters Turkeys
Walters Turkeys

Everything is done on the farm. The birds are prepared to go out to the customers on site – whether individual orders or butchers asking for batches – and dispatched packed and ready to sell.

So what has changed in the 50 years since Phillip and Julia bought their first 500 turkeys?

"The rearing of the birds hasn't changed a bit," they say. "It's just that we've got a lot more of them!

"Preparing them for sale is probably where there's been a bit of change because of developments in machinery that can help with the process. "

Walters Turkeys
Walters Turkeys

With nearly 10,000 turkeys to prepare and send out, they are glad of that help.

"We're proud of maintaining the tradition that our parents established," says Helen. "We recently received 2 stars from the Great Taste Awards, so we know we're still getting it right and, the best accolade of all, our customer come back to us year after year."

It looks like the Walters intend to supply Christmas dinner for families across the region and further afield for many years to come and in 50 more years, who knows how many turkeys will be roaming Bower Farm.

To find out more about Walters Turkeys visit www.waltersturkeys.co.uk

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