The alpacas protecting 24,000 Christmas turkeys

By Elizabeth Hotson
Business reporter, BBC News

Published
media captionTom Copas explains how his farm uses alpacas to protect turkeys

It's a few weeks before Christmas, and two slightly grumpy alpacas are on guard duty at a farm in south-east England.

The animals are part of a herd of 10 that have a very important job - protecting 24,000 free-range turkeys from being attacked by foxes.

The introduction of the alpacas - called Blitzen, Comet, Cupid, Dasher, Dancer, Donner, Onion, Prancer, Sage and Vixen - was the brainchild of Tom Copas, the owner of family business Copas Turkeys.

He came up with the idea in 2015 after a series of fox attacks resulted in hundreds of birds being killed at his farm in Cookham, Berkshire.

"It's not as strange as it sounds," says Mr Copas. "Alpacas are used all over the world to deter wild dogs and coyotes.

"We've always had dogs that keep the birds safe, but they can't be on the ranges all the time, unlike the alpacas who stay there day and night."

The grass-eating alpacas are perfectly suited to the job because, while they will drive away foxes, they get on fine with turkeys.

image copyrightCopas Turkeys
image captionTom Copas (right) says that the turkeys and alpacas get on well

Native to South America, alpacas react aggressively to foxes because in the wild foxes will try to kill unguarded baby alpacas.

"Alpacas are very territorial and although they seem standoffish, they're docile and co-exist pretty happily with the turkeys," says Mr Copas.

His family's farm has been in the turkey business since 1957, and planning for the Christmas rush starts in February.

Alpaca facts

image copyrightGetty Images
  • Native to Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile
  • Bred primarily for their fleece, which is made into everything from blankets and ponchos, to jumpers, hats and gloves
  • Alpacas can also be reared for their meat, or to protect other animals
  • They are the second smallest member of the biological family Camelidae, which also includes camels and llamas
  • A herd animal, they have been domesticated for thousands of years
  • Most male alpacas are castrated. A castrated alpaca is called a "wether"

"We contact butchers at the start of the year to calculate how many poults (young birds) we need to order," says Mr Copas.

"The turkeys roam around outside from six weeks old, and at 26 weeks they reach full maturity. They're then slaughtered, hand plucked, and game hung (hung for a length of time to improve their flavour)."

At around £14 per kg, the 24,000 Christmas turkeys are at the expensive end of the market, but Mr Copas says the price reflects the cost of rearing the birds.

"We spend more on feed than would be the case for supermarket birds that are typically slaughtered at 16 or 18 weeks."

image copyrightCopas Turkeys
image captionThe turkeys on Mr Copas's farm are more mature than those you would get in the supermarket

As Mr Copas and his team are preparing for the final run into Christmas Day, a host of other businesses are also experiencing their busiest time of the year.

The Ministry of Fun, an entertainment production company based in south-east London, trains 40 stand-in Father Christmases to fill in for the big man at shopping centre grottos and children's festive parties.

image copyrightMinistry of Fun
image captionThe Ministry of Fun rigorously tests its Father Christmases

James Lovell, the Ministry of Fun's founder, says that finding and training substitute Santas is a serious undertaking.

"It needs to be done properly because you have to recreate the magic of Santa in every way, and we start the recruitment process just after Christmas for the coming year."

Things ramp up at the Ministry of Fun at the beginning of November, when the surrogate Santas get their outfits, do a refresher course with role playing, attend a costume and make-up workshop, and are tested on remembering the names of all the reindeer.

image copyrightMinistry of Fun
image captionBecoming a stand-in Father Christmas is not an easy process

They're also taught how to say Merry Christmas in various languages including French, Italian, Spanish and Swedish.

Mr Lovell says that a combination of other factors makes the perfect Santa.

"He has to look absolutely immaculate, smile incessantly, and be in a permanently good mood. But it's not just about appearance. He also has to have a great 'ho ho ho'."

One of the stand-in Santas, who is resolute about staying in character, says: "I spend the whole year looking forward to Christmas. I make toys, boss elves around, that sort of thing. It's a wonderful life."

December is certainly a very busy time of year for toymakers. Handmade rocking horse business Stevenson Brothers sells 100 horses at Christmas, the same amount customers buy across the rest of the year.

With prices starting from £5,000 for a basic horse, and rising to £96,000 for one encrusted with Swarovski crystals, they aren't the cheapest stocking fillers. However, they also aren't the quickest things to make, with a typical example taking two to three months to complete.

image captionMark Stevenson's business sells half of its rocking horses at Christmas

Mark Stevenson, co-founder of the Kent-based company, says: "The wood comes from East Sussex and Kent, the metalwork is done at a foundry round the corner from us, the leather is from Walsall.

"And we use horsehair from all over the UK, often from the customer's [real] horse. The same goes for horse shoes and to really personalise things families often incorporate their own crests."

Happily sweeping back and forth on one of his horses at the recent Spirit of Christmas Fair held at London's Olympia exhibition centre, Mr Stevenson adds that he has a 30-minute rocking horse ride every day.

"It's great for deportment and keeping my back beautifully straight," he says.

image copyrightiStock
image captionThe Royal Mail will deliver letters to Santa Claus

How Father Christmas manages to deliver everyone's presents on Christmas Eve remains a mystery, but it is possible to help him out by giving him some guidance on what gifts you want.

In the UK the Royal Mail has been delivering letters to Father Christmas since 1963. Andy Downes, its operations director, is keen to stress that because Santa is so busy letters must be sent to him in good time, and include your address if you want him to reply.

Mr Downes adds: "We have a team of elves to help process the letters, but to make sure they get there, they need to be posted by 9 December."

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