WHEN BBC Radio 4’s flagship rural soap opera The Archers brought in two new characters earlier this year it wasn’t long before feathers were getting ruffled with the long-established Grundy family who produce turkeys. That’s because brothers Toby and Rex Fairbrother are now running a goose enterprise on David Archer’s land in the fictional village of Ambridge.
It may well have proved an unintended masterstroke for Christmas sales of free range geese in the UK this year, with talk of an increase of around five per cent on last year largely through greater awareness of the bird in the storyline. Goose had already shown a healthy rise in recent years but even with an increase in demand once again this year its sales still amount to only a fraction of the turkey market. Annual sales of geese last year were around 250,000 as opposed to 10 million turkeys.
Tim and Lynne Lindley have turkeys and geese at Hostingley Farm, Thornhill near Dewsbury and although they may well be competing for centre stage on Christmas Day dinner tables they are both experiencing a healthy surge this year. It’s all good news down on the real farms such as theirs where they have been producing Christmas poultry for over 30 years.
“We’ve always prepared turkeys and we started with geese about eight years ago,” says Tim. “It was purely down to demand. We were getting questions all the time about whether we had them and eventually we started. They are much harder work to prepare than turkeys, usually taking twice as long to pluck and dress. There are not just the outer feathers but also the down to take off.
“We process everything here on the farm so from being one-day-old our birds never leave here until they are collected oven ready for Christmas. All our birds are hung in our chiller for a minimum of 10 days to enhance their flavour.
“Geese have a smaller meat weight range than turkeys. The prepared goose will be anywhere largely between 10lbs-19lbs whereas turkeys will generally vary from 10lbs-25lbs.
“We’d had very little experience of rearing them when we started and we’ve learned as we’ve gone along. They’re great characters, bright as anything and are always looking out for each other. There’s one of them on guard like a sentry. If I go down to the field either on my own or with anyone else you will see the head go up of one of the designated lookout, swiftly followed by the rest. They’ll take a look and if you’re someone they don’t know they’ll make more noise.”
The Lindleys get their geese in as day-olds from Leicestershire in May each year and after a fortnight inside they are outside. Welfare is Tim’s first priority.
“The day-old gosling is about the same size as a week-old turkey but the turkey then grows at a faster rate then the goose. Geese are grazers by nature and have freedom to roam in the fields during the day as well as having the opportunity to shelter in straw filled barns.
“We start them off with a gosling crumb feed and they then move to our own home grown straight wheats and grass through the growing season. At around eight weeks we start giving them a bit of finisher ration made up of half-wheat and half-compound. It’s the same finisher that we also give to the turkeys.”
Risk of flight and bird temperament isn’t a problem at Hostingley Farm. The birds don’t reach that age where they become particularly territorial, nor do they fly higher than a few feet at best.
“They might just scoot over a fence if they get enough wind behind them and in a morning you’ll see them beating their wings as they are running down the field together but I think it’s more a morning exercise than flying although they have cleared the fence once. As geese get older they develop territorial tendencies, but they never get to that stage here.”
Lynne takes most of their orders online, but also over the phone and from customers calling direct. She is inundated from the beginning of November onwards when everyone comes to pick up their birds. It’s a frenetic time but not without its moments of humour.
“One woman came to the door last year with a very concerned look. Her gardener had called of her one day to show her the huge flock of what seemed about 100 geese flying overhead. She was so worried that she’d made the trip specifically to ask ‘they weren’t yours were they?’ We were able to set her mind at rest by showing her our white, non-flying geese.”
Goose was at one time the poor man’s turkey at Christmas but due to the lesser numbers produced than turkey it has attracted a premium price. Lynne believes that one of the reasons why some are still holding back on buying a goose is the lack of knowledge about the meat and how to cook it.
“It’s a darker meat that is more the colour of lamb and is probably best described as halfway between turkey and duck. When it’s cooked well it’s not as oily as duck.
“The best way to check that it’s ready is when you see the juices running clear. You should never overcook your goose as that’s when all the oil will have run out and you will find it dry.
“Some who are preparing themselves for Christmas wonder whether it will fit in their cooker. They are a long bird but you can usually fit it by placing it diagonally in the roasting tin.”
Tim believes the only problem you can have with a Hostingley goose is if you don’t look after it once you’ve taken it home.
“Some people just don’t understand that although it may be cold leaving it in the car boot isn’t a good idea.
“If you’re paying for a fresh bird you want to keep it as fresh and in as good a condition as possible.”
Tim and Lynne are tenants across 129 acres with most of the farm down to arable crops. Their turkey production is now 80 per cent Bronze and 20 per cent white.