FACT SHEET: History of Turkey Farming

• The modern common turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is descended from wild turkeys. These still exist in North and Central America from Mexico to the US-Canada border. (University of Leicester, Turkeys Part I)

• The Meso-Americans were the first to domesticate turkeys, around 500 AD. (University of Leicester, Turkeys Part I)

• Recent research suggests turkeys were originally kept for their feathers, and only later for meat.(University of Leicester, Turkeys Part I)

Introduction to the UK

• Spanish explorers were the first to bring turkeys to Europe from the Americas. The earliest recorded live turkeys to reach Europe were brought to Rome in 1520. (University of Leicester, Turkeys Part II)

• Sir William Strickland claimed to be the first to bring turkeys to England in 1524. Alternatively they may have come via Europe. (Fothergill 2014 p. 208)

• In his 1726 A Tour in Circuits Through the Island of Great Britain, Daniel Defoe claimed that most turkeys were raised in Suffolk and Norfolk. He noted that farmers would walk hundreds of droves, ranging from 300 to 1,000 turkeys in a drove, to markets in London.

The 19th century

• The railway replaced walking droves of turkeys. (Fothergill 2014 p. 217)

• Once turkeys reached their destination, they were put in a “crammer” for fattening. (Fothergill 2014 p. 217)

• Attitudes towards animal welfare started to change in the 19th century. More people criticised practices like cramming turkeys together, methods of fattening them, and plucking them while still alive. (Fothergill 2014 p. 216)

The 20th century
• In the early 1900s British turkeys were still their original bronze colour. These included breeds such as the “Bronze.” (The Poultry Club of Great Britain)

• By the 1950s, almost all commercial turkeys had been bred to have white feathers because their young feathers or pin feathers are less visible after plucking.

• After WWII the USA developed processed meat products as convenience food, using body parts of birds that would otherwise be thrown away. (Lane and Duffy 2007)

Bernard Matthews Ltd adopted American methods of production and started raising turkeys in the UK in 1958. (Lane and Duffy 2007)

• British United Turkeys was formed in 1961 from a collection of smaller breeders. It was largely responsible for increasing turkey size in the UK and turning open range turkey farms into indoor factory farms. It was bought by Aviagen Turkeys in 2005. (Davies, 2014)

• Bernard Matthews Ltd. bought unused WWII airfields in Norfolk and Suffolk and built turkey farms. By 1965 over 1 million turkeys were being raised in them. (Bernard Matthews)

• Following American methods, Bernard Matthews Ltd. created processed turkey products like Crumb Turkey Steaks, turkey ham slices, dinosaur-shaped nuggets and marinated fillets. (Lane and Duffy 2007)

• Bernard Matthews Ltd. also created the Turkey Twizzler. In his 2005 programme Jamie’s School Dinners, Jamie Oliver used this product as an example of substandard junk food being fed to children in schools. As a result Turkey Twizzlers were banned from schools, and Matthews eventually stopped producing them.

The 21st century

• In 2007, Bernard Matthews Ltd. was at the centre of the UK outbreak of H5N1, having to kill over 150,000 turkeys. (Lane and Dufy 2007) (Haynes, 2007)

• The majority of commercial turkeys around the world are now Broad Breasted White (BBW). This is what supermarkets almost always sell. (University of Leicester, Turkeys Part III)

• BBW turkeys are bred to be large. They commonly have difficulty holding up their own weight, and have breasts too large to be able to mate. Because of this, the industry uses artificial insemination. (University of Leicester, Turkeys Part III)

• BBWs are supplied internationally by just a few breeding companies, mainly Aviagen Turkeys (incorporating British United Turkeys and Nicholas Turkeys), and Hybrid Turkeys (part of Hendrix Genetics) (Lister p. 501)

By Elizabeth Schoales


You’re free to re-use, edit and even claim this research as your own. Though if you do give us credit, please tell your readers if you’ve made amendments.


Bernard Matthews. “Our Bootiful Story.”
Davies, Jake. “History of Turkey Production is Triumph of Science.” Farmers Weekly. November 2014
Fothergill, Brooklynne. “The Husbandry, Perception and ‘Improvement’ of Turkeys in Britain, 1500–1900”. Post-medieval Archaeology vol. 48 issue 1 (June 2014) pp. 207-28
Haynes, Deborah. “Bernard Matthews Says Bird Flu Scare Not his Fault. “ Reuters. February 2007
Lane, Megan and Jonathan Duffy. “How Turkey Became a Fast Food.” BBC News Magazine. 7 February 2007
Lister, Stephen. “Turkeys.” Management and Welfare of Farm Animals John Webster, ed. (5th ed. Wiley-Blackwell, 2011)
The Poultry Club of Great Britain. “Turkeys
University of Leicester. “Turkeys Part I: The Reason Why Cranberry Jelly Was Invented”. 2010
University of Leicester. “Turkeys Part II: From Bishop’s Novelty to Family Favourite.” 2010
University of Leicester. “Turkeys Part III: Wattle They Think of Next? “ 2010

See also:
Fothergill, Brooklynne. The Bird of the Next Dawn: The Husbandry, Translocation and Transformation of the Turkey. PhD thesis, University of Leicester, 2013

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