What is a Norfolk Black turkey?

Patricia Graham with the book she wrote about her family and Norfolk black turkeys. Picture: Ian Bu

Patricia Graham with the book she wrote about her family and Norfolk black turkeys. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: IAN BURT

The Peele family saved the Norfolk Black turkey from extinction and now rear a rainbow of free range birds for Christmas. We find out more from the farming family’s Patricia Graham

What is a Norfolk Black turkey?

The breed originated in South America and has black lustrous feathers, black feet and black eyes but white moist flesh. It was taken by the Inca tribe to Spain and arrived in East Anglia in the early 1500s where it was reared by farmers and got named the Norfolk Black.

How did your family save the breed?

My father Frank Peele, with poultry advisor Mr Bell, saved the Norfolk Black from extinction in the 1930s when it was found the larger Bronze turkey had become popular with the large Victorian families and the Norfolk Black had almost died out. Bronze turkeys were brought to Yorkshire from the Hudson Bay area. Both breeds flourished in Britain and the Pilgrim Fathers took a cross breed back to America in the late 1600s, which then bred with the wild turkey again and produced other types of heritage turkey including the Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Lavender and Buff.

How many generations of Peeles have farmed in Norfolk?

George Peele and my grandfather Ernest started rearing turkeys in 1880 and my son James is now the fourth generation. I wrote The Late Hatch, Turkey Times, Past and Present about my family connections with turkeys and the Norfolk Black when Peele’s celebrated 130 years of trading.

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What breeds of turkeys do you raise?

We rear approximately 2,000 birds for the Christmas market including Norfolk Blacks, Cambridge Bronzes, Lavenders, Bourbon Reds, Narragansetts and Royal Palms. Our birds are bred on the farm and fattened on our home-grown wheat, oats, barley and field beans. They are hand plucked and sent oven ready all over the UK, or collected a few days before Christmas from the farm.

What will you be eating for Christmas dinner?

We usually have a Norfolk Black or Lavender for our Christmas dinner. The breed is a smaller bird which will be handy for families wanting a small turkey this year.

Can you tell our readers something they might not know about your turkeys?

King Henry VIII was the first monarch to eat turkey as a meatier bird than the usual festive meal of peacock or swan. Turkeys and geese were walked from sales held at Attleborough and Aylsham in August and September to Smithfield Common in London, where they would finish fattening, covering a few miles a day and eating waste corn, berries and acorns on the way. Records show turkeys being sold at Smithfield market in 1554.

Peele’s Norfolk Black Turkey, Rookery Farm, Thuxton, near Dereham. peeles-blackturkeys.co.uk