DECIDING on which breed of turkey to buy can be difficult as there are more than people generally realise. The Norfolk Black, the oldest breed originating in the UK, should be coal black all over, with no hint of other colour in the feathering.

The majority - if not all - have a bronze edging on the back feathers. This is inherited from the days when Bronze mating was introduced because of the shortage of Norfolk Black bloodlines. This cross breeding took place in America as well as the UK, and to this day if any Norfolk Black was found with no bronzing on whatsoever, it would earn its keep through that very fact alone.

The Bourbon Red turkey is named after Bourbon County in Kentucky's Bluegrass Region where it originated in the late 1800s. They have dark red plumage with white in the flight and tail feathers. The main tail feathers also have a soft red bar at the tip. The body feathers on the stags (males), also called toms or cocks in America, have a fine black line on the edging and the hens (females) have a narrow lacing of white on the breast feathers. Bourbon Reds are active foragers and do well on grass. However, it must be stated that turkeys should be housed at night, not because of the cold for they are very sturdy creatures but because they are much sought after as fox food!

The best-known turkey The Bronze is probably the most popular variety of turkey and most well known. It originated from crosses between the domestic turkeys brought by European colonists to the Americas and the Eastern wild turkeys. The metallic sheen, which gives the breed its name, is part of its inheritance from its wild ancestors. The naturally mating standard Bronze is now rare, having been left behind by the turkey industry after developing the broad-breasted bird. In the UK the standard Bronze and the commercial Bronze are considered separate varieties and conservationists in America and trying to encourage this approach to their birds.

The Buff is named after the rich reddish-buff colouring of its body feathers. It is a slighter paler cinnamon shade than the Bourbon Red but although there is a little white on the wing and tail feathers, there is no black edging. By the 1900s the Buff turkey in America had become rare. Today it is close to extinction and there are very few of them in the UK, which is a pity because in the early 20th century they were so popular there was a Buff Turkey Club.

The Narragansett is a turkey from Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, where it was found being domesticated by the local Narragansett tribe. It descends from a cross between wild turkeys and domestic birds, probably Norfolk Blacks. Today the Narragansett turkey is critically rare in America and only two main bloodlines exists in the UK. One imported from Canada in 2001 and the other from Belgium in the same year. These have been the basis for an increasing flock in this country.

An attractive breed The Pied turkey is a European variety that has been known since the 1700s, or even earlier. The well known Crollwitzer, a German bird is slightly smaller than the Pied but in most other ways very similar. The American equivalent is the Royal Palm. It is a lightweight turkey, primarily used as an ornamental variety and for its egg production. The contrasting black and white feathering makes it a stunningly attractive bird, much admired when it is displaying.

The Slate and Blue are once again gaining in popularity. The Slate has silvery blue feathers with occasional black flecking, whereas the Blue - sometimes called Lavender - is a solid, pale blue all over. The Blue turkeys have never been used commercially to any extent, but they have been and remain, very popular in exhibition circles.

There are other breeds and also variations of the above breeds but it is important to remember that when buying, a turkey may not be what it appears. Just because the colouring looks right is no proof that it is a true breed.

Obviously which breed you choose will very much depend on the reason for keeping turkeys? For meat birds, the Norfolk Black, Bourbon Red and Bronze are ideal and very flavoursome. They must be given time to grow though because they are slower growing then commercial birds and really need to be hatched in April/May for the Christmas market. The Pied is not suited for meat but this and most of the other breeds would make ideal pets, if they are handled gently and often from the time they are poults.

Correct feed is vital Having bought your turkeys they will need correct feed. Day-old poults have turkey starter crumbs until about 4-5 weeks old and from these they transfer to turkey grower pellets. Turkey poults require more protein than chicks and will not thrive if fed on chick crumbs. It is very important to feed turkeys correctly especially during the early months. Once almost adult, at around 17-18 weeks, the birds go on to turkey breeder pellets. If the turkeys are table birds then move the from grower pellets to finisher pellets, which are specifically designed for meat birds.

Pellets are fed in the morning, for these are easily digestible and get into the system quickly. Cereal is fed in the afternoon, ideally at least two hours before the birds go to roost. Wheat is harder to digest and will stay in the crop longer than pellets, giving the bird sustenance throughout the night. I feed wheat on its own during the late spring, summer and early autumn, then feed mixed corn over the winter months. The maize in the mixed corn is warming, so is ideal for when the days are colder.

Turkeys also adore treats. Sunflower seeds provide protein and oil for feather condition, fallen top fruit like plums and apples will be cherished and other titbits like corn on the cob and greens, like cabbages or Brussel sprout tops are great to hang up in sheds when the turkeys are housed all day.

Fresh water on a daily basis is a must. Young poults can drink from poultry drinkers but place the drinker on a feedbag or stand it on slight platform so that the drinking lip does not fill up with shavings. As the birds get older larger drinkers, or even a bucket when they are adult can be used. Be sure that the bucket handle lies flat against the side though as turkeys have been known to get their heads stuck under the handle if it is up and drown.

Good hygiene around drinkers and feeders is important, particularly with so many diseases around. About one a fortnight - or more frequent if possible - soak the feeders and drinkers in water with disinfectant in it and then give them a good scrub, followed by a rinse with clean water. There are several recommended disinfectants available but Virkon S is one of the most popular.

When cleaning out turkey housing, which should be done on a regular basis to prevent the build up of bacteria, you can either wash out the house using Virkon S if it is a hot summer's day, or brush it down thoroughly and spread Stalosan F disinfectant powder over the floor before putting more clean litter in.

Protect your birds Cleanliness and good biosecurity is something which should become a routine habit but currently it is even more important following the recent high pathogen Avian influenza (HPAI) outbreak in Suffolk. Although the source of the problem at Holton may have some bearing on whether we can expect further outbreaks of the disease, turkey keepers - and other poultry keepers - should take basic steps to protect their birds.

Be prepared to house the birds if required. This would be needed if you find yourself in a 3km Protection Zone containing infected premises. Here birds must be kept indoors and will be blood tested by State Veterinary Service vets to see if they are harbouring HPAI or not. All movement in the Protection Zone is banned, except under licence for movement such as going to slaughter. Poultry keepers should also keep away from other poultry premises.

Outside the Protection Zone is the 10km Surveillance Zone. Occupiers of premises in this zone where poultry or other captive birds are kept, must house the birds, or keep them isolated if housing is impractical or would adversely affect the birds' welfare. If the birds are kept isolated the birds must have no contact with other poultry, captive birds or wild birds and they should be fed and watered away from wild birds.

Beyond the Surveillance Zone is the Restricted Zone, which is usually a much wider area surrounding the Protection Zone and the Surveillance Zone, where all birds must be housed or kept isolated, away from wild birds. Movement in these is also banned except under licence.

Work out now how you would deal with the above requirements, so that if an outbreak of HPAI were to break out in your area, you would certainly be prepared. You should already be keeping feed and fresh water away from wild birds; controlling vermin; quarantining new stock for 2-3 weeks and changing your clothes before attending to the turkeys if you have visited other poultry breeders.

A large barn to house the turkeys would be great but make sure it is bird-proof. There is little point in putting the birds under cover if the wild birds are still having access. Several poultry housing firms sell covered wire netting runs now so that birds can have access to grass but are protected from wild birds.

Keep an eye on your birds for any unusual health problems but don't carry it off to the vet if you suspect that it could have Avian influenza. It is much less of a risk to get the vet to come to you.

We may well have to learn to live with Avian influenza, so a little effort now in protecting the turkeys will be well worthwhile. Once you have done what you can for them the most important message left to say is enjoy your birds.