UK faces turkey shortfall at Christmas, farming industry warns

·3-min read
Turkeys are guarded from foxes by Alpacas at Copas Traditional Turkeys farm in Cookham, Maidenhead. Picture date: Wednesday October 6, 2021.
The British Poultry Council has warned staff shortages may impact the supply of turkeys for Christmas. Photo: PA

Farming bosses have warned that acute shortages in the UK labour market due to both Brexit and COVID-19 mean there may not be enough turkeys and produce to go around at Christmas.

Speaking at a Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee session on Tuesday, British Poultry Council chair Graeme Dear said the industry is doing its utmost to provide produce, but that the UK government had not moved fast enough on addressing labour issues and supporting the industry. 

He called for a two-year visa scheme in recognition of the fact that this is an issue that will persist past Christmas for the poultry industry. 

Charlie Dewhirst, policy adviser at the National Pig Association, said it is a "deeply distressing time for the industry", noting how the shortage of butchers was weighing on the pig farming sector. 

Watch: Pig farmers warn of 'welfare crisis' due to lack of butchers

He said it takes 18 months to train a butcher from scratch and that they are well-paid and skilled jobs that the industry is finding impossible to fill. A butcher in the UK is typically paid between £26,500 and £40,000. 

Factors leading to the crunch in the sector included the loss of China export market, Brexit leading to an acute loss of workers, and travel restrictions during COVID making the UK an unwelcome place to do business and work. 

The National Pig Association has been having weekly crisis meetings with the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs since February. 

Tom Bradshaw, vice president of the National Farmers' Union (NFU), said the labour shortages are "completely inexcusable" and that changes need to be made urgently. 

According to NFU figures, there was a 34% shortfall in available labour in the peak month of July in the industry. 

Read more: Budget 2021: Public sector pay freeze to end, says Sunak

He said nearly a quarter of the daffodils growing in Cornwall went wasted this year, which are usually worth £100m for the Cornish economy. 

Businesses are also mothballing future produce in anticipation of the problems continuing. 

"I've never seen the industry in the position it's in at the moment," he said. "It's only as we're at the cliff-edge that anything has been put in place." 

Derek Jarman, chair designate of the British Protected Ornamentals Association, said that due to Brexit, the "pool of labour is diminishing year by year" and that a reduction in VAT would help support businesses in his corner of the market. 

The calls from farming bosses come following a period of high stress for both supply chains and labour markets in the UK. 

Earlier this year, the Road Haulage Association warned there could be a shortage of around 100,000 drivers in future months. 

This has sparked empty shelves in supermarkets and fears of the delivery of fresh produce in the future. 

Watch: Labour: Shortage plans should have been made months ago

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