Turkeys are large creatures, very impressive looking and fascinating to have around. Before thinking of buying some though you need to be sure that you are allowed to.
If you are living in a modern house there may be a condition in the contract that does not allow livestock to be kept. Even a pet turkey is looked upon as livestock by the local authorities.
Consideration should also be given to your neighbours. Stag turkeys (males) gobble in reaction to any sound and hen turkeys have a wide vocabulary. Therefore it would be courteous to consult them and win them over before actually purchasing any birds.
Any poultry needs to be looked after 365 days a year and you may find it harder to enlist help to look after the turkeys if you plan to be away several times a year. Whatever you do never leave it to the last minute to arrange turkey care in case it is difficult to find. The birds cannot be left to their own devices and under The Animal Welfare Act it is your responsibility to care for their welfare.
With all this accepted, it depends on why you want to keep turkeys as to the area of land needed for them and the size of housing. If you are intending to raise turkeys for the Christmas market then working out how they will be dispatched come slaughtering time should be resolved before you even buy any. It is against the law for anyone to kill a turkey unless they have been trained to do so by attending a course or being shown by a suitably experienced person.
Half a dozen turkeys may be housed in an adapted good quality 8ft x 6ft garden shed. This is not large enough for them to be kept inside all the time but is ideal for overnight. It needs a ventilation area to be made near the roof, covered with small mesh wire. A 3inch round pole placed about 2 ½ft off the ground across the inside will make an acceptable perch. Turkeys are not fox proof so it is essential that they are safely housed at night. You need to be one step ahead of them when it comes to putting to bed time because if you have left it too late they will have flown up and perched on the roof or high up on some other building. It is not advisable to leave them there, because of severe weather in the winter and light mornings in the summer, when Mr. Fox will be still ranging around.
Depending on your premises you may have to fence an area for the birds. 6ft high wire is used but it is still possible for hen turkeys especially to fly over and out if they so wish. Generally, they are well behaved if there is sufficient room and vegetation to keep their interest.
The above housing also applies to pet turkeys or turkeys kept for showing, although if you have access to a large shed it is a good idea to house the birds during the winter. Turkeys need to be kept clean and dust-free shavings make a good litter. The cleaner they are kept the healthier they are likely to stay. Stale faeces allow bacteria to build up and turkeys will then succumb to respiratory and fungal diseases.
The main worry for turkey keepers is the disease Blackhead. This is caused by a protozoan worm that chickens can carry but turkeys, pheasants and peafowl suffer from. If the land has had poultry on before or if the turkeys are to be near or with other forms of poultry then everything needs to be wormed on a regular basis. This is about every six weeks, which then interferes with the life cycle of the Heterakis worm, which if allowed to get through the gut, causes severe damage to the liver and is usually fatal. The wormer licensed for use in poultry in the UK is Flubenvet and a pack was recently brought out especially for the smaller poultry keeper. Each pack is sufficient to treat up to 20 birds at a time and is available from veterinary practices, licensed agricultural merchants or on-line veterinary pharmacies.
The mating season for turkeys begins in late January onwards and hen turkeys running with stags should wear a breeding saddle. These are made from canvas or leather and outlets are available via Turkey Club UK. The saddle is put on the hen at the beginning of the mating season and remains on until August/September time. They do not restrict the bird at all but prevent a great deal of possible damage from the stag. About four weeks after mating has begun the females start to lay.
Turkey eggs are wonderful to bake with but if you want to hatch them they take 28 days to incubate. This can be done either in an incubator or under a broody hen or broody turkey. Turkeys make good mothers but they must be put in a quiet, safe, isolated area and must not be disturbed by other birds around. During natural incubation the hen turkey needs to be taken off the nest once a day for a wheat feed, drink and to empty herself. You will need to watch over her or she will dash back to the nest not having completed any of these tasks.
If artificially incubating eggs, once hatched and dry the poults need to be moved to a secure and draught free area with a heat lamp. Young turkeys will need heat for around six weeks, depending on the time of the year and weather conditions.
Feeding turkeys correctly is vitally important, they grow into big boned birds and need a higher protein ratio than chickens.
Turkey starter crumbs contain 26-27% protein, which is higher than chick crumbs.
Chick crumbs should NOT be given, for not only have they insufficient protein but some contain coccidiostats that are harmful to poults. A little chopped up hard boiled egg mixed in with the crumbs will soon get turkey poults eating. Dip a poult’s beak into the drinking water to show it where to drink and how.
At around 4-5 weeks the poults can be moved onto either turkey rearer pellets or turkey grower pellets. The rearer pellets are slightly lower in protein than the starter crumbs and the grower pellets contain 21% protein which is slightly less than rearer. From 9 weeks to adult the poults remain on turkey grower pellets.
Turkeys destined for the table are put on turkey finisher pellets between 12-16 weeks but if they are being kept for exhibition, conservation, breeding or as pets then a turkey breeder pellet is given. Wheat is not given until the birds are 12 weeks old and then a little wheat is fed in the afternoon. Grit is vitally important and a little is given on a weekly basis either separately or with the feed from young poults onwards. Chick grit then mixed poultry grit is given but never oyster shell alone as this can become compacted in the crop.
Treats for turkeys include apples, plums, sweet corn, sunflower seeds and cabbages. They will love to graze on grass and will chase insects and eat berries, so beware that there are no poisonous plants or berries in the area where they will be living.
It is a good idea to think about the variety of turkey you want before just buying any turkey. There are ten varieties of standard turkey, these are the old turkeys that nature made with a high breastbone and not the commercial double-breasted birds that you find in the supermarket that man developed.
Turkeys can be bought from many sources now but buying hatching eggs via the Internet poses a risk as you cannot be sure that the eggs will be fertile or the birds pure. Buying an adult trio from a reputable breeder is possibly the best way to go about it. Should you be tempted to buy from a livestock auction then do your homework first and get advise on the standard for the variety being sold and find out what they should actually look like.
Advise on turkeys can be obtained from Turkey Club UK, Cults Farmhouse, Whithorn, Newton Stewart, DG8 8HA. Tel: 01988 600763 Website: www.turkeyclub.org.uk If you are interested in turkeys then do join the Club and receive help and information on all aspects of turkey care as well as the fun aspect of showing turkeys.
Photos and text Copyright Janice Houghton-Wallace.