The Black turkey originated in Europe and is believed to have evolved from Mexican turkeys that had been imported in the early 1500s, writes Janice Houghton-Wallace.

At this time the Black turkey was not completely black and sported some sporadic colouring of white and brown in the feathers, particularly in the tail. This turkey became popular around Europe and breeding continued to develop further the black plumage which contrasted well with the white flesh.

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Going for a walk with 'mum'. Photo: Carys Goldie

William Strickland is the person credited with introducing the turkey into England in 1524, probably via Spain. A farmer’s son, he had gone off to explore the New World with Sebastian Cabot. A tale has it that strange looking birds were found with the Native American Indians and beads were exchanged for some of them. It was young Strickland’s task to look after the birds during the voyage back and for this he was allowed to sell the turkeys when they reached port, realising four pence each. Although there is no actual provenance for determining this it is quoted in various sources.

Farmers in the Eastern counties and most notably Norfolk were very interested in keeping these domesticated birds for meat and that is how the Norfolk Black turkey came to have its name. The turkeys were reared and sold live at the annual October sales at Aylsham and Attleborough. They were bought by London businessmen and then walked by drovers to Smithfield Common, London. The turkeys had their feet dipped in tar and chopped straw or sand to enable them to withstand the 100 mile journey. Grazing and foraging on the way, they would arrive at the Common in early December. There they grazed and rested until being killed in mid December for the Christmas market.

After a century of improving the Norfolk Black some birds were returned to America with European colonists. These turkeys where then crossed to the wild turkey and became the foundation for the standard Bronze, Narragansett and Slate varieties, as well as being the basis for the Black variety in America.

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Having a conversation with a young Norfolk Black. Photo: Ron Tof

Although the turkey was renowned for its meat it had also become a fascinating subject for both artists and sculptors. An example of a stunning sculpture of a turkey is less than ten centimetres high and incorporates both gold and diamonds. It is arguably the most expensive Norfolk Black you could ever set eyes on and was carved by Faberge. In 1907, King Edward VII commissioned a collection of miniature sculptures of the animals at Sandringham, the Royal Estate in Norfolk and one of these sculptures was of a Norfolk Black turkey. This Faberge turkey is now part of The Royal Collection.

Today the standard Norfolk Black - like all pure breeds - is classified as rare. One family can trace rearing turkeys back to the 1800s. James Graham rears Peele’s Norfolk Black Turkeys in Thruxton. in the footsteps of his great grandfather Ernest Peele and his grandfather Frank is recognised as having saved the Norfolk Black from extinction.

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The striking head of a Norfolk Black male. Photo: Ron Toft

Some Norfolk Black turkeys have been developed further to become a commercial double breasted bird and in this instance the name Norfolk Black is confusing. The standard Norfolk Black, although considered one of the best varieties of turkey for its meat has also gained recognition as an exhibition bird.

The body of the Norfolk Black is fairly long and deep and is particularly broad across the shoulders. In Britain the Norfolk Black should be a dense matt black throughout, with no other colouration in any feathers. On the tips of the lower back feathers there is often seen a slight bronze band but this is undesirable and efforts are being made to breed it out. This bronze sheen is no doubt the result of matings back to a Bronze line, both in America and in England, when new blood was introduced to add both vigour and size to the Norfolk Black.

The beak is black and the eyes are very dark brown almost black. Legs, feet and toenails should be completely black, however, as the bird ages the legs and feet lose the black and change to pink. The female often has short black feathers on the head and face, which are not considered a fault.

A young Norfolk Black stag (male) will weigh 8.15 – 10.00kg (18 – 22 lb) with a mature stag weighing up to 11.35kgs (25lb). A young hen will weigh 5.00 – 5.90kg (11 – 13lb) and a mature hen 5.9 – 6.80kgs (13 – 15lb).

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A Norfolk Black poult and friends

Norfolk Black turkey hens make good mothers and are very attentive to their poults. Incubation takes 28 days and when hatched the body of a Norfolk Black poult will be black but the head and face can be a creamy white, along with the breast and the abdomen. There is no distinct pattern to this and poults can have a lesser or greater amount of creamy-white down colouration. The pale colour will disappear with age and as feathers begin to grow these should be totally black. The beak will be a pale pink with varying amounts of black on it, especially at the tip. The shanks, feet and toes will be black with some flesh colouring as well.

I spent many happy years breeding the Norfolk Black turkey and it is a fowl that is a delight to have around. Turkeys need a clean environment to flourish and like other poultry must be protected from predators.

A garden shed adapted with ventilation, not too high a perch and bedding will provide overnight accommodation for a trio of Norfolk Black turkeys. With a fenced area or free-range if someone is always around to monitor their safety, they will provide eggs for eating, fertile eggs for incubating and offspring for meat.

The standard Norfolk Black needs conserving and is an ideal variety of turkey for smallholders.

Useful information Peele’s Norfolk Black Turkeys, 01362 850237, peeles-blackturkeys.co.uk Turkey Club UK, Secretary Brenda Waterman, 07876 652991, turkeyclub.org.uk

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This article was first published in Smallholder magazine. For your copy subscribe here, email subscriptions@warnersgroup.co.uk or call 01778 392011.