A leading Norfolk poultry farmer warned there will “definitely” be a shortage of turkeys this Christmas, as government efforts to resolve a workforce crisis have come too late.
Ministers announced at the weekend that up to 5,500 temporary poultry workers will be permitted to travel into the UK in the run-up to the festive peak.
The move aims to ease a critical labour shortage across the food chain, mainly attributed to post-Brexit immigration changes which have ended free movement across borders and forced many Eastern European seasonal workers to seek employment in other countries.
But the damage has already been done, say East Anglian farmers.
Mark Gorton is a director of Traditional Norfolk Poultry, based in Shropham near Attleborough, whose workforce needs to double from 300 to 600 for the festive rush.
Mr Gorton, who is also a member of the National Farmers’ Union’s poultry board, said: “I don’t want to sound ungrateful – anything is better than nothing.
“But the whole industry is short of people right now.
“There definitely will be a shortage of birds available for Christmas, because people have already cut numbers back.
“We have not done this ourselves, because we have to place our birds very early in the season, but other people who placed their birds later in the season were looking at the labour situation in spring and have cut their numbers back.
“We have been banging this drum for months and months, telling the government this is going to happen. So it is no surprise to us, and no consolation to say ‘we told you so’.
“The measures they have put in have helped, but these are short-term measures and we urgently need long-term solutions – or do we want these problems next Christmas too?”
Mr Gorton, whose firm supplies free-range poultry to supermarkets, said there is also likely to be some streamlining of product ranges, so there may not be the same level of choice on shop shelves.
The Traditional Farm Fresh Turkey Association (TFTA), said while supermarket shelves are likely to be hit by a shortage of skilled European employees, smaller farms that use local workers have been less affected.
But Robert Garner, of Godwick Free Range Turkeys at Tittleshall, near Fakenham, is worried about the same issues on his family-run farm.
He has currently only recruited about half of the 18 people he will need to process the farm’s 5,000 turkeys in December.
“We use a lot of European labour at Christmas time, because you cannot get English people to do this work,” he said.
“Because this is a perishable product, we cannot start earlier to give ourselves more time, so there is a finite window of opportunity.
“If we cannot get enough staff we will struggle to get through them – it will mean incredibly long days and that is not sustainable.
“I have a lot of faith in my labour supplier, but I am not overly confident we will get enough people. We are looking at ‘plan B’ now, looking at existing labour from other farms who are not busy at that time of year.
“My other concern is distribution. 85pc of our business is wholesale to butchers and farm shops, but we have [haulage] companies saying to us they cannot guarantee deliveries because of the shortage of drivers.
“The whole supply chain is struggling. They [the government] have left it too late. These Europeans have gone home, and I don’t think they will come back.
“It is like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.”
The government also announced that up to 5,000 drivers will be able to come to the UK to transport food and fuel in the run-up to Christmas.
Recruitment for additional short-term HGV drivers and poultry workers will begin in October and this entry route will be valid until December 24, it says.
Environment secretary George Eustice said: “It is a top priority to ensure that there are enough workers across the country’s supply chains to make sure they remain strong and resilient.
“We have listened to concerns from the sector and we are acting to alleviate what is a very tight labour market.”