Janice Houghton-Wallace looks at what you should consider before deciding to rear your own Christmas dinner July is when most turkey rearers take delivery of the day-old poults that are destined for table birds later in the year but already the goslings will have been in existence for a week or two; turkeys needing around 20-22 weeks to mature and geese a little longer at 26-28 weeks.

Rearing your own dinner - especially Christmas dinner - is something that many smallholders aspire to but if you have not done so before then there are considerations that have to be made beforehand. Firstly, if the birds are to be for the immediate family you will presumably not be keeping many and the fewer you rear the more difficult it is not to make pets of them. With children around this is made even more difficult and you would need to impress on them from the beginning that the birds will not be living with you for very long and why.

Killing 'Fred' is difficult Even celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay - when rearing some turkeys in his garden for the programme 'The F Word' - was concerned about how the children would feel when it came to killing the six named birds. It is certainly something to think about because if a child has become quite bonded with a bird, knowing that you have deliberately killed it could have quite a devastating effect for a while. Giving the turkeys names will add to the bonding and make the dreaded deed more difficult. If children are growing up in the knowledge of livestock being reared and then slaughtered for food it is easier than a child being newly introduced to the procedure.

By this time you will be saying to yourself that all this thought won't be necessary as the family will not get that bonded and they are only turkeys anyway. That is undeniably true but turkeys, especially when there are only a few and they are given ideal rearing conditions and freedom to grass, become great characters and very friendly. It will take a hard heart to deny the attachment and when the time of despatch comes it will be a difficult day to get through.

Secondly, having decided that this emotional hurdle can be overcome you need to think about how the birds will be killed, as farm animal welfare is protected by law. No person should engage in the slaughter of poultry unless he/she has the knowledge and skill necessary to perform those tasks humanely and efficiently in accordance with European regulations.

The rules governing animal welfare at slaughter and killing are set down in Directive 93/119/EC on the protection of animals at the time of slaughter or killing and implemented in Great Britain by the Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995 (WASK) and in Northern Ireland by the Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1996.

Schedule 1 of the Regulations sets out the licensing procedures for slaughtermen. There is an exemption from this requirement for any person who slaughters or kills any animal elsewhere than in a slaughterhouse or knacker's yard provided he is the owner of the animal and the slaughter or killing is for his private consumption. He must ensure that he complies with Regulation 4(1) of WASK, which states that "No person engaged in the movement, lairaging, restraint, stunning, slaughter or killing of animals shall cause any avoidable excitement, pain or suffering to any animal or permit any animal to sustain any avoidable excitement, pain or suffering".

The person must also ensure that any such animal that is slaughtered is stunned before slaughter in accordance with Parts 1 and II of Schedule 5 of WASK, which lists the permitted methods of stunning animals and any specific requirements for those methods. He must also ensure that any such animal is killed in accordance with the permitted methods of killing listed in Part III of Schedule 5 of WASK.

Organise the slaughter arrangements early This is a very important issue to consider and it is not fair - as several people end up doing - to telephone a commercial turkey rearer at the beginning of the Christmas period to ask if he would deal with your birds for you. Often the turkey producer will agree if you only have one or two birds but remember that when you want your turkeys despatched is at their busiest period also. Arranging for a professional slaughterer to despatch them for you but booking him well in advance is the responsible way of approaching the situation if you are not skilled in the process yourself. To find a professional slaughterer in the area contact the local Meat Hygiene Service.

Should you decide that perhaps keeping a larger numbers of turkeys is for you, marketing is the next thing to consider. Keeping turkeys for the Christmas market can be profitable but it is becoming harder to be so. With commercially produced birds at very low prices in the supermarket, rearing a few turkeys and charging a fair amount to cover your costs and still provide a profit will be difficult unless you can provide a different or specialised product.

Going down the organic route is not a quick way of making the books balance. To sell turkeys that are reared organically you need to have a certificate of registration from one of the acknowledged organic organisations. It is illegal to sell a product as organic if you are not registered as such. The turkeys need to be reared organically and the premises inspected and approved to obtain and then retain your organic status. Obviously there will be costs involved in starting up organically but the end product can then demand a premium price. Beware though, for your marketing area may not be one where lots of people are willing to pay for organic birds.

Finding your market niche Researching the market potential is essential and could save you a lot of time and money if you decide your project is not going to be feasible. Just because you happen to be raising Christmas turkeys this year does not mean that everyone in the neighbourhood is going to buy from you. Some will of course but if they are already being provided with a turkey for their Christmas dinner that they are happy with it is unlikely that they will change producer. This is why it is advisable in your first year to cut down on the number you rear and use the first year of turkey production as a learning curve.

Rearing the birds and seeing how they best develop, with all the work surrounding the killing and preparing for marketing will provide great experience. It is hard work and you may well be pleased that you are keeping fewer to begin with so that you know what to expect and can prepare for the following year accordingly. It would be sole destroying to rear a large number of birds only to panic about not being able to cope with all the preparation work or a possible lack of sales when the time comes.

Should you have birds left over, rather than sell them off extremely cheaply and lose out on any profit, make sure you have a freezer with space for them - even if you live off turkey more often than you would like! Once customers discover that it is a good idea to wait until Christmas Eve because you will be selling them cheaply in desperation, you will have that type of buyer to contend with in following years. Good quality, locally reared turkeys should be worth a good price and you will risk the financial stability of your product if you do not keep to this.

Next month: Having covered the obstacles we look at rearing the birds.