Meet the Yorkshire poultry farmers dedicated to bringing the best birds to for Christmas dinner

PUBLISHED: 14:39 10 December 2012 | UPDATED: 22:29 20 February 2013

Meet the Yorkshire poultry farmers dedicated to bringing the best birds to for Christmas dinner

Meet the Yorkshire poultry farmers dedicated to bringing the best birds to for Christmas dinner

Meet the Yorkshire poultry farmers who dedicate 12 months of the year to bringing the best birds to our dining tables on December 25th. Annie Stirk reports. Photography by Andy Bulmer.

Meet the Yorkshire poultry farmers who dedicate 12 months of the year to bringing the best birds to our dining tables on December 25th. Annie Stirk reports

Christmas comes early every year - for organic poultry farmer Jo Cartwright. By May each year she places an order for turkey chicks and by July takes delivery of her new brood at her award-winning organic farm to be fattened for the Christmas ahead. One customer emails me every year on Boxing Day to book a turkey for next year, says Jo, who farms with husband Andy and son Ed at Swillington Organic Farm, Garden Cottage, Leeds. Its lucky I love being outdoors all the time.

As one of only a handful of organic and free-range poultry farmers in Yorkshire, Jo is only too aware of the benefits of taking your time with Christmas birds, whether its turkey, goose, chicken or duck. Anything slow grown tastes great, she affirms.

Jo, who describes herself as farmer, grower, market trader, butcher and anything else that needs doing, has lived and farmed at the historic Swillington Park estate for more than 40 years. Her family bought the farm formerly a large stately home on a par with Harewood in 1959, and they currently own 160 acres of what Jo describes as woodland and water. When I was growing up James Herriot was in the news a lot and I always wanted to be a vet, but I ended up going into the next best thing, says Jo.

The farm which turned organic in 2001 is home today to a menagerie of free range and organic animals, including Muscovy ducks (some of which are sold for Christmas), rare breed pigs and cattle as well as a wide range of wildlife, which takes advantage of the diverse habitats on the farm including woodland, marsh, pasture and ponds. With a walled garden vegetable patch to boot, its possible to collect your entire Christmas dinner from Swillington.

For the last six years, the 150 organic, traditional bronze turkeys have ruled the roost roaming freely around the farm along with some other more unusual breeds such as Lavender, Norfolk Blacks and Bourbon Reds. The turkeys also share their home with Jos brood of organically reared chickens, which won a Deliciouslyorkshire award last year, but they are quite different in temperament to the gobbling turkeys. Turkeys are very characterful, says Jo. If you talk to them they talk back at you.

Sometimes they will suddenly disappear and we find them roosting in the rafters; some even have a habit of disappearing up into trees.

Up early each day to tend and feed the birds not to mention wade through a pile of paperwork and make deliveries the life of a poultry farmer is pretty labour intensive. In Dewsbury, fellow farmers Tim and Lynne Lindley have spent the last 22 years rearing free-range turkeys and geese at their Hostingley Farm, and confirm that the job is not just for Christmas.

Straight after Christmas, Im planning for the next one, says Tim. In January and February Im trying to predict what people might want to eat and ordering the chicks. Once they arrive in late spring Im essentially babysitting. I have to go in three times a night to check on them and ensure no disasters happen. Mr. Fox is probably my biggest problem and because we have a derelict railway running through our farm, it acts as a motorway for foxes. The birds are a very precious commodity and I only have one shot at it.

Getting the birds to reach the right weight is of course important. Geese are either small or medium but the turkeys can range from 10lbs to 50lbs, so its all about predicting what people might want and rearing them in the right way so they reach their optimum weight, says Tim.

Whats more, meeting the demands of an increasingly savvy consumer can also be a challenge. Theres been a real upturn in turkey sales but people are particularly interested in the higher end, quality birds like ours that make Christmas that little bit more special, says Tim. Our turkeys are free-range, they are dry plucked and hung for 10 days to mature and this softens the meat and gives it a lovely texture. Jo agrees.

We also dry pluck our turkeys (it takes about a week to do them all) and then theyre hung for three weeks and the wing tips are waxed; similarly, we kill our chickens at 10-14 weeks when the normal slaughter age is six weeks, she says. You can really tell the difference between an organic and non-organic chicken, they are very meaty not a lot of fat and you dont have to put a lot of sauces on to give them flavour. Its a very labour intensive operation but its worth it because the result is moist meat with great flavour.

Taking extra trouble with their animals is also the ethos of the Mathison family, from Yorkshire Geese, in South Street, Leven. The welfare of the animal is paramount and our geese and ducks are treated with very kind hands, living in some 40 acres with lots of freedom, says Daniel, who runs the farm with his uncle Malcolm, dad Stuart and mum Ruth. The birds are treated to an all-day buffet of cereals straight from the Mathisons farm, including wheat and barley, and theyve recently started adding maze to the mix to give the meat a richer, yellow colour. They can have as much as they want, whenever they want it, says Daniel. But theyre often happier just eating grass all day and they have access to the paddocks 12-hours a day.

Daniel is up at 6am to check on all the birds, and quarantine those that fall ill. He can spend half a day messing about with the birds and often doesnt get home until 8pm. But theyre definitely worth the trouble which is really a labour of love. The ducks and geese come to us at one day old and are looked after by us from then on, says Daniel. From day one to the day they are killed we know exactly what goes into them, what theyve eaten and how theyve been looked after and the taste is far superior. Im pretty sure the supermarkets couldnt tell you that much about their birds.

Persuading people to choose a bird other than a turkey which they enjoy with all the trimmings at Christmas can sometimes be tricky, however.

People have a traditional idea of what they want at Christmas and sometimes it can be hard to dissuade them. A lot of people have the misconception that goose is fatty but with new breeding strains this just isnt the case anymore. Goose is not so different to turkey and with stuffing and roasted veg its fantastic.

For Jo at Swillington, Christmas dinner tends to be whatever is left over from her supply, but she has a well-deserved rest on Christmas day when son Ed cooks up the family meal and all the trimmings in the farmhouse kitchen. Shes keen to put people back in touch with their food and every year organises turkey walks so they can get more of a feel for how the birds are reared and cared for. Basically they can come and meet their Christmas dinner, she says. Each year we get a couple from Cumbria who travel by train for one of our slow growing organic turkeys, she adds. Ultimately, people will travel far for a good bird.

Words by Annie Stirk.

Photography by Andy Bulmer.


Swillington Organic Farm
Garden Cottage, Coach Road, Swillington, Leeds, LS26 8QA, 0113 286 9129,
07974 826 876

Hostingley Farm Free Range

Hostingley Farm, Thornhill, Dewsbury, WF12 0QJ, 01924 272 570

John Wright Turkeys

Holmes Turkey Farm, Wyton, Bilton, Hull, HU11 4DJ, 01482 811421
With some 40-years experience, Johns free-range turkeys are something special, coming wrapped in a gift box complete with giblets, cooking instructions, a cooking timer and a sprig of rosemary.

Herb Fed

Unit 1, Woodmans House, Pilmoor, York, YO61 2QG, 01845 501168
Edward Wilkinson left a job in the city to start a food business in his native North Yorkshire, and after hitting upon the idea of rearing bronze turkeys he began experimenting with their feed, serving up herbs from his aunts farm Herbs Unlimited. The result is moist and distinctive meat that has already won many, many fans.

Yorkshire Geese

Southfield Farm, South Street, Leven, HU17 5NY, 01964 543993, 07949 648445

Top five tips for a top-notch bird

1 Think about the number of people you need to feed before selecting your bird 10 people will go very hungry if theres just one duck. Roughly speaking, a 4.5kg (10lb) goose or a 3.5kg (8lb) turkey will feed six to eight people, while a 2kg (5lb) duck will serve four people so youll need two or three of these for a big party. Also, make sure your oven can accommodate your birds.

2 Always bring the bird out of the fridge in advance so they can come up to room temperature before going into the oven. A whole duck will take about an hour, while bigger birds may take two.

3 Make the stuffing in advance to save time on the day (it also tastes twice as good.) Duck is very versatile and goes well with all sorts of stuffing; try mandarin orange with finely chopped celery, onions and breadcrumbs, or pancetta with chopped prunes and chestnuts. Goose is lovely with cubed apples and herbs, or pear and celeriac with sausagemeat, breadcrumbs and sage, while turkey shouts out for the obligatory pork, sage and onion, although cranberry, bacon and walnut are equally luxurious.

4 Line the roasting tray in foil (to avoid spending most of Christmas scraping pans). Wrap the bird loosely in foil and wrap its legs to prevent singeing. A 4.5kg (10lb) goose and a 4-5kg turkey will take approximately 3 hours, while a 1.75-2kg duck around 2 hours at around 180C, but always check the instructions the bird comes with. Cook for about half the cooking time and then remove the foil and baste with the juices every 20 minutes until the cooking time is up. Pour off any surplus fat, or, with goose and duck, siphon off the fat to use for delicious roast potatoes. You can also cook your bird in advance and keep it warm, wrapped in foil and a tea towel, while all the other dishes are cooking.

5 Check your bird is cooked by putting a skewer through the thigh; if the juices run clear its cooked. (if its pink it needs more time). Have a glass of Sherry, rest up and rest your bird for around 30 minutes so it retains all those lovely juices, then serve with all the trimmings.

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