If you are still unsure what kind of turkey to serve this Christmas, how about one raised exclusively outdoors – under the protection of a dedicated, full-time guard dog?
Bear, a 50kg Maremma Sheepdog, lives outside all year round and works day and night to protect farmer George Ford’s 640-strong flock of slow-grown Bronze turkeys. Maremmas are bred in central Italy to live with flocks of sheep and protect them from wolves and other predators, and Ford is one of a handful of farmers in the UK utilising them to operate a full-pasture-raised chicken and turkey farm.
Most free-range turkeys are shut away in a barn at night, explains Ford, a sixth-generation farmer. “That one paddock soon becomes overgrazed and turns to mud quickly,” he says. “And you can’t give them any more space because you are limited to where the barn is.” With Ford’s Bear-proof pasture method at his farm – Nempnett Pastures in Blagdon, Somerset – the turkeys are kept within a poultry net that is moved to fresh ground every couple of days. They also don’t need to be shut in at night. “We couldn’t do that without Bear as it would be too risky for a fox getting through the net.”
When Ford first brought Bear home as a puppy two years ago, he put him in a little kennel within the turkey’s pen, so they could get acquainted. Now, Bear won’t even come into the Ford family home and prefers to live 365 days outside. “The most he will do is stand with his paws on the back steps. He doesn’t like going inside very much,” says Ford.
There were a few teething problems in his early training. “He’d never kill a bird, but he’d run around with one in his mouth. We had to obviously stop that,” says Ford. “Now I trust him totally. He wouldn’t kill one of them unless we didn’t feed him. He’s very good.” Ford’s social media posts that feature the dog generate the greatest engagement; never groomed, Bear’s snow-white fur remains surprisingly immaculate.
Bear has since been joined by Holly, another Maremma but slightly smaller at 40kg, who had been bought as a pet and raised domestically by a family nearby, only to be given up. Now the two dogs work together. From April to August they live with Ford’s flock of chickens. They are then split up when the turkeys arrive in summer and are reunited when the chickens go in November. “They play really well,” says Ford. “It’s nice to see. I didn’t like it at the start when [Bear] was on his own, so it was really good for him to have Holly for company.”
From December to April, there’s no poultry at Nempnett Pastures and the dogs live around the farm and the paddocks. They like spending time with Ford’s herd of Hereford beef cows.
This is Ford’s sixth year raising turkeys, having started with 120 and now more than quadrupling his production. After six months living on his farm, the turkeys are slaughtered on 4 Dec. Nempnett Pastures uses a dry plucking process, which means the birds are legally allowed to hang for two weeks afterwards, helping to develop flavour. Ford mainly sells from his website and to local people, but is able to ship nationwide.
Having his flock outside, and the exercise they get consequently, he says helps the birds to develop such beautiful flavours. People love the story, he says: “And when they eat it, they realise turkey can be juicy and tasty.” Bird flu is a concern, but Ford believes raising his birds completely outdoors means they have lots of space and pathogens don’t spread as quickly as they would in a barn.
It’s a far cry from the origins of Nempnett and Ford has turned the family business upside down in recent years. After the Second World War, the farm intensified production, ultimately concentrating on intensive pig farming. “It was really intensive factory farming. And I hated it,” says Ford. “With processes and supermarkets squeezing the margins, the pigs became so low animal welfare. We had to lock the sheds up because we dreaded anyone seeing it.”
In the modern farming world, Ford says, “you either need lots of animals in sheds or lots of acres.” With only 150 acres, Nempnett Pastures is small by modern standards. But he was determined to find a way to farm more sustainably and ethically. When he had the opportunity to move into turkeys and develop a pasture-fed model, he took it. “I wanted to do something that I am happy and proud to show the world.”
Today, that involves showing off Bear and Holly with pride. Although you wouldn’t want to get too close. Maremmas, a breed that is referenced as far back as the 2nd century BC, are fiercely protective. “They are so loyal to us and love my family,” says Ford. “When I go down to them, they come running up with a big smile on their faces. You can’t help but interact with them. Bear just lies on his back and wants his belly rubbed all the time.
“However if [anyone else] walked down there Bear would be a completely different dog. He’d be up barking and baring his teeth. It’s quite scary. If he doesn’t know you, good luck to you.”
Ford can sleep well at night, knowing Bear would never hurt a feather on one of his birds. “There’s one turkey who will chase him and he chases him back; they play together. He’s really as good as gold.”