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Talking Turkey

Amongst the collection of retired and competition horses, graze the small flock of sheep that were once destined for the meal table. The free range hens and turkeys that started their lives in factory farms strut and cluck in busy contemplation in the safety of their run.

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I do however, smile to myself when I’m tutoring maths to a group of children, and Mary decides to have a wander over the table, usually defecating at the most inopportune moment on some hard fought reasoning problem – as if to pass judgement. Gabrielle will then make a monumental effort to fly onto the table to join her sister, sending papers and children scattering to the four winds. ‘Oh nooooo,’ they admonish as I extract turkey, poo and papers from the far reaches of the kitchen. ‘Not to worry…’ I smile and continue – the kitchen towel slowly diminishing as each poo is negotiated and niftily swept into the bin. Maths at Morndyke is never boring. The cats don’t help. Khufu stares and sits on papers, refusing to budge an inch. Kiki, on the other hand, has developed a rather naughty habit of sniffing said turkeys rather too closely. I have then witnessed the sniff turn into subtly opened jaws that close around their scrawny necks, only to be accompanied with an alarm call of a rather surprised chick. Usually a swipe with the back of my hand is enough to displace the cat. It leaves me with an uneasy feeling that perhaps I should change the turkey flavoured cat food to a different brand.

The same thing happened when we had the lambs in the house. Juno and Jupiter joined us at a couple of days old. I zipped them in my coat, brought them home, and then lo and behold, they had moved in. The kitchen transforms into a sanctuary with every new arrival. The lambs wore nappies through the duration of their stay. I have never known an animal make so much mess. Who would have thought that two little pet lambs, no bigger than the cats could wee so much? However, they soon outgrew the kitchen as they stretched their legs. They rapidly realised that the world spread beyond the confinement of the room. It soon became a race once that kitchen door was opened. Slippy tiled floors gave no grip to cloven hooves. The lambs would wheel spin out of the door into the study, displacing flying cats. All four were quicker than me. All four claimed ownership of the sofa. I was relegated to the rug. I knew things weren’t quite right, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it…

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The lambs nearly finished Alan off. ‘Those bloody sheep should be outside,’ he would cry,’ there is shit all over the place.’ – A despairing wail would crack his tone. It was lucky he was out at work every day. We all soon learnt to scarper pretty damn quick when the familiar rumble of his Toyota and trailer cruised into the yard. It’s amazing how quick one can sweep up poo and place distractions over wet carpets…

I had to give Alan time. He was emotionally scarred.

However time is a great healer and the stress of sharing his house with two renegade sheep paled into the background. The dust settled, the cats took therapy and the carpets slowly recovered. And then Christmas happened.

Behind the farm is a disused air base – a relic from the Second World War. It is peppered with derelict old buildings that were once occupied by the Canadian air force. The land is vast and open – perfect for landing bombers and spitfires, perfect for turkey farms. I struggle with the concept of factory farming, all our stock are farmed with love and are free range. I spend my time rescuing misshapen and unloved creatures. However, on the air base there happens to be a number of turkey factory farms dotted around the 3.5 mile track. I ride Capote regularly around the base, negotiating startled partridge and indignant skylarks, with the odd feed lorry thrown in for good measure. I remember it was cold two weeks before Christmas – as one would expect. Capote and I trotted merrily along, putting the world to rights – he’s a great listener, when I happened upon a turkey hut. Now Christmas was a mere snip away, and there, in front of me was an open door. From behind the screens, babbles of tiny voices filtered through. As did a turkey. An oven ready, white, fat and heavy bird with the innocence of a baby – indeed they are butchered at 16 weeks old. I froze. So did Capote. A thousand thoughts flooded my brain as time stood still. A baby. A Christmas dinner gazed up with child-like eyes. What could I do? What could anyone do? The only choice was to kidnap said turkey. I jumped off Capote, who snorted and backed off at high speed. I knew that turkey napping was not strictly legal, so having a horse turn into a boggle-eyed, fire-breathing, snorting dragon right next to where I was about to commit a heinous crime was not ideal. Turkey or horse, turkey or horse? Turkey won. Capote snapped his bridle and buggered off. Shit. Quick as a flash, I grabbed the turkey who was rather alarmed at the prospect of being free one minute, then encased in my arms the next. She did what any self-respecting turkey would do and shouted loudly, which clearly was terrifying for the boggle-eyed, fire-breathing dragon of a horse. I held her beak closed between finger and thumb, tucked her under my arm and caught Capote. Thankfully he followed like a lamb, the turkey realised actually it was quite a warm, snug place to be and fell asleep. However, I now had quite a trek home – 1.5 miles with an enormously heavy sleeping turkey and a meek and gentle horse in tow. I called her Mary.

As we walked, I noticed in the distance a lorry, slowly growing larger. I recognised it – a turkey collection lorry heading straight for Mary’s hut. Oh shit. 1 loose horse, 1 rider on foot and 1 large turkey fast asleep. As it approached, I smiled and waved and walked on. I was thrown a quizzical glance and then the lorry stopped and pulled up, 50 yards behind me at the turkey hut. I felt sick at the thought of the ‘what ifs?’ At least Mary was safe. I owe someone for a turkey.

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Mary was hilarious, clearly Rod Hull had had a turkey when he created ‘Emu’, she entertained me for hours with her antics. I loved her, but something was missing from her life. She had spent all her short days being intensively farmed with a thousand other turkeys. She was now on her own and had no one to talk turkey to. I needed another turkey. The hunt was on.

Bird flu had struck. All sales and movement of poultry were banned. You try finding a live turkey over the Christmas period too. Plenty offered me them, but sadly none were breathing. Many phone calls ensued and reconnaissance missions were undertaken but to no avail. Time was ticking. Eventually, after endless hours of enquiries, I found a man with a bird. At last, Mary was to have a friend. I had found Josephine.

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She was a very different bird to Mary – slightly coy but rather maternal. On her first night in the hen house, I found 3 old hens poised precariously on top of each other, under her wing. She looked slightly bemused, but accepted her new role as surrogate mother to a bunch of ageing ladies. Mary and Josephine clicked, and chortled merrily to each other whilst going about their daily business. They lived happily together for a couple of months, then Mary became ill. She sadly passed away in my mother’s arms one winter’s day. She left a huge hole in my life. Who would have thought a scraggy, Christmas dinner would have so much heart and life? I missed her terribly, as did Josephine.

Again, I was left with one lonely turkey. This time it was Josephine’s turn. The loneliness of being the last turkey became a real problem for her and she pined. She became quiet, depressed and sedentary. As soon as she saw me, she would crouch down and gape her beak. Nothing could persuade her to come round. I took her to the vets on several occasions, who prodded, poked, injected etc, but to no avail. They came out on site – as did the film crew for ‘The Yorkshire Vet’. I think a depressed turkey was a novelty for them. Her condition didn’t alter. I even looked into the possibility of turkey anti-depressants, but funnily enough, there are no such things… I was at a loss as to what to do. The only option was more turkeys. The hunt was on (again).

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Bird flu was still in full swing, so no turkeys could be traded. My previous lead had run dry. Then someone advised me to contact the turkey hatchery who produce thirty thousand chicks a week. Surely they could spare one? After a few false starts and some skulduggery, I managed to ‘acquire’ three newly hatched babies. My heart melted and I was in love. Mary (2), Gabrielle and Elizabeth were born. My babies imprinted on me and I on them. They are my shadows, but by God, they can shit. Poor Alan. Once again our house smells like a muck heap, chicks fly everywhere, cats scatter, poo is flung – chaos is resumed.

The three little bundles of fluff grew. They spend their evenings buried under my hair, or sleeping, or dust bathing on my chest. I am the archetypal mother hen and I love it. The cats sort of do. Alan doesn’t.

My heart was broken again one morning when Elizabeth grew ill. She was quiet and subdued. I called out the vets, who injected, poked and prodded. But she was so young and so little. She had waited for me and died in my arms. Again, a gaping hole was left in my heart. I think of Mary (1) and Elizabeth and hope they are together now.

The three little bundles of fluff grew. They spend their evenings buried under my hair, or sleeping, or dust bathing on my chest. I am the archetypal mother hen and I love it. The cats sort of do. Alan doesn’t.

My heart was broken again one morning when Elizabeth grew ill. She was quiet and subdued. I called out the vets, who injected, poked and prodded. But she was so young and so little. She had waited for me and died in my arms. Again, a gaping hole was left in my heart. I think of Mary (1) and Elizabeth and hope they are together now.

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The three little bundles of fluff grew. They spend their evenings buried under my hair, or sleeping, or dust bathing on my chest. I am the archetypal mother hen and I love it. The cats sort of do. Alan doesn’t.

My heart was broken again one morning when Elizabeth grew ill. She was quiet and subdued. I called out the vets, who injected, poked and prodded. But she was so young and so little. She had waited for me and died in my arms. Again, a gaping hole was left in my heart. I think of Mary (1) and Elizabeth and hope they are together now.

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The two chicks (poults) grew and grew, and were still shitting, eating, dust bathing, chortling, chasing cats and scavenging. That’s when Gabrielle had her accident. It happened so quickly and it was so horrific. She happened to have discovered the dish washer. Inside was a vast array of potential food. Bits of left overs adorned the base, and she was quick. As was the sprung loaded door. Life turned into slow motion as events unfolded themselves in front of my eyes – closing door, turkey head, gap closing, turkey not moving, door closing, door closing, door closing. BANG. Shit. Shit. Shit. I grabbed the door, yanked it open and pulled out a rather stunned turkey. She was alive. How, I don’t know. She should have been decapitated. The force of that door is huge and her head was near the hinge. I held her tight into my chest and didn’t look or let go for an hour. I couldn’t. I felt sick to my core. She felt rather dazed. I called the vets (again) and discussed turkey brain surgery, haemorrhaging, head aches.They said time would tell. She moved rather slowly that evening – as if her world had slowed to half speed. I watched and waited and cuddled and paced. Time.That was the only answer. In time she recovered. She is slightly wary of dishwashers, but not of peas – her and Mary’s favourite food. They still spend the evening flat out on my shoulders, but I’ve started to introduce them to the great outdoors. They are finding it great fun. I am trying to. Fledging turkeys and children is not an easy task.

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