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'They go completely bonkers, flapping with excitement . . .'.

It's time for the turkeys to spread their wings and discover the great outdoors I ALWAYS breathe a sigh of relief at this time of year; at last the turkeys are out to grass. They reached the age of six weeks old a few days ago and, as they were all fully-feathered, they were ready to leave the shed brooding unit.

Turkey poults need a tremendous amount of heat - after all, just imagine how warm it must be under a fully-grown turkey. The temperature needs to stay around 35C for the first two weeks of their lives, gradually decreasing as they get older, but you have to watch their behaviour and adjust the height of the brooder lamps accordingly: too warm and you will see the birds gasping; too cold and they will huddle together for warmth, often smothering one another in the process.

Early deaths put a lot of people off rearing turkeys. It's not nice going down to the shed in the morning, only to have to pick up another tiny dead body. Generally, though, if your poults don't die in the first four weeks, they stand a good chance of survival. We always expect to lose at least 10% in the first month, either through general, unexplained "fading" or suffocation from huddling. Once they're fully feathered and out to grass, you have little to worry about - apart from the mysterious killer called blackhead.

Birds lose interest in food, droppings turn yellow and runny, and there is often a darkening of the skin and wattles on the head - hence the name "blackhead" - before they eventually die.

Blackhead - or histomoniasis - is a disease which attacks the digestive tract of turkeys. Chickens can carry the disease without being affected by it, and it can lie dormant in the soil for years. The usual advice given is never to keep chickens and turkeys together. However, for people with restricted space that just isn't practical.

The key rule I've always followed is to make sure you worm your hens regularly, as Heterakis gallinae (the caecal roundworm ) is the little varmint which is to blame for the problem. Wild birds can also carry the worm, of course, so it pays to feed and water your turkeys indoors if at all possible.

Most turkey feeds will contain medication which will fight blackhead and also coccidiosis - a more common poultry problem, again affecting the digestive system.

Before transferring our turkeys out of their shed and into their new enclosure, there was one more job which needed to be done. It's all very well stopping predators from getting in, but if a bird insists on getting OUT, it's just as likely to become a takeaway meal.

Unless you want to build a prison- height fence, wing-clipping is the answer. This involves snipping off the flight - or primary - feathers of one wing. Only one wing is done, so that it unbalances the bird, making flying impossible.

Clipping, below, is a painless procedure - a bit like trimming nails - but you have to be careful not to cut too far up the shaft of the feather or you'll draw blood.

As I'm still nursing a fractured spine, Gerry had to do all the chasing and catching, while I was in charge of the kitchen scissors. One by one, we put them into the livestock trailer and then towed the lot down to their open-air home.

Then came the best bit - letting them out to smell the fresh air, feel the sun on their backs, and discover the tasty green stuff growing beneath their feet. I really love watching them pluck up the courage to poke their heads out of the trailer and, very slowly, take a few tentative steps down the ramp.

Then, once they're out, they go completely bonkers, flapping their wings with excitement, and whirling around the place like tiny little aeroplanes taxiing in preparation for take-off. It's one of the great pleasures of rearing turkeys, and one which never ceases to bring a smile to my face. Write to Liz Shankland c/o Western Mail, Blue Street, Carmarthen SA31 3LQ, with an SAE for a reply. Or email downtoearthliz@hotmail.co.uk
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Sep 4, 2007
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