Modern turkeys are the descendants of wild varieties, originally from North America. They were brought to Europe by the Spanish who had discovered them as a favourite domesticated animal of the Aztecs.
Prior to the Second World War, turkey was considered a luxury in Britain. Intensive farming of turkeys, introduced after the war, has resulted in turkey becoming a popular poultry meat.
Turkey farming today
Over 650 million turkeys a year are used for meat production, globally. Of these, over 240 million are in the US and over 200 million in Europe.
Modern commercial turkeys are selectively bred to grow much faster and with more breast meat than traditional turkeys. Turkey chicks are typically reared in enclosed, broiler-type sheds, containing thousands of birds.
By the time they are ready for slaughter at between 9 and 24 weeks of age, turkeys will weigh between 5kg and 20kg or more.
Intensive rearing methods
In intensive turkey farming, the Turkeys have no access to the outdoors during their lives. When they reach slaughter weight they are loaded into crates to be transported to the slaughter house. They may be hung by their feet from shackles whilst still conscious. They are then dipped in an electrified water bath to stun them before their throats are cut.
Inside the turkey shed
A typical, crowded turkey shed (note trimmed beaks).
The young turkeys are kept in overcrowded sheds that are usually bare except for food and water points, with litter on the floor to absorb the droppings. The sheds are artificially lit and ventilated. The low lighting is kept on for much of the day to encourage the birds to eat.
As the birds grow, the overcrowding gets worse until the floor of the shed is completely covered and they cannot move easily.
Smaller turkey producers, especially those producing for the seasonal winter market, often keep turkeys in open barns with natural lighting and ventilation. The number of birds per square metre is typically lower than in enclosed sheds.
Intensive methods of rearing turkeys raises many welfare issues.