Specialty meats produced in Britain such as guinea fowl and quail are hard to find. With so few UK breeders operating herds, traders and retailers have to rely primarily on French imports.
But with consumers appearing to be more environmentally conscious, there could be an untapped niche for UK farmers in a sector providing slower growing birds with low feed miles – if there was proper support from supermarkets and government.
We ask farmers and retailers for their views on guinea fowl opportunities and find out why, for a quail producer, market volatility means the business is no longer viable.
See also: Commercial-scale guinea fowl find their niche
The producer’s point of view
Producing free-range Suffolk guinea fowl is something of a side business for Chris Mobbs, helping to support sales for his larger free-range Christmas turkey business. But keeping guinea fowl is quite rare in the UK.
“For three generations the Mobbs family have been raising Christmas turkeys in the traditional way,” says Mr Mobbs, trading as PA Mobbs & Sons, based near Cratfield.
“We started with guinea fowl about 10 years ago. We were looking for another product, as well as turkeys. We don’t produce them on a large scale, but they are good for our business promotionally.
“We go to the Aldeburgh Food & Drink Festival, where the guinea fowls are the eye-catcher and once people are on the stand we sell turkeys out the back.
“We’re just too far off the beaten track to sell to London restaurants – if you factor in transport costs, it’s very difficult to charge for it.”
Mr. Mobbs sells to local butchers and farm shops as well as providing a delivery service to customers. He raises 4,000 turkeys and 400 guinea fowl a year, mainly for the Christmas trade, although birds can also be ordered at other times of the year.
Customers appreciate the fact that the birds are raised outdoors, he says.
“Freedom means our birds have grassy enclosures to run around in, with enough space to really spread their wings. At night, they sleep in a warm, dry shed to protect them from foxes.
The birds are also fed locally grown grains and legumes, he says.
“Most poultry farmers buy their feed from a large commercial mill, but we still believe that the grains we grow on the farm are the best for our birds. We grow wheat, barley, oats, beans and peas and grind them ourselves.
At tasting events, people love the flavor of guinea fowl and often say it tastes “like the chicken of old,” Moyles says.
“We encourage customers to try it roasted or in their favorite pan, and have posted some of our favorite recipes on our internet recipe page, pamobbs.co.uk.”
The guinea fowl can be roasted in the same way as a chicken, a 2 kg poultry taking about 1h20 at 180°C.
“Our guinea fowl are very different from the intensively farmed French poultry often sold in supermarkets,” explains Mr Mobbs.
“Our English guinea fowl are raised slowly to reach maturity. They are larger than imported birds, so one Suffolk guinea fowl will feed four people.
A medium-sized bird (1.5-1.8kg) costs £18 and a large one (1.9-2.4kg) costs £20 – plus postage and packaging for online orders.
Retailer’s point of view
One company selling guinea fowl through its website is The Wild Meat Company, co-founded by Robert Gooch.
“We’ve been selling it since we started The Wild Meat Company 22 years ago.
“We process game and specialty poultry, but we have not found any UK-based commercial operators capable of producing large quantities of guinea fowl,” says Mr Gooch.
There isn’t a huge demand for guinea fowl, which could explain the lack of interest in commercial production, he says.
“They have a slightly higher value than chicken. With the cost of living crisis, some customers are downsizing to cheaper cuts and we may not see an increase in demand until the crisis subsides.
Consumers tend to buy guinea fowl based on the perception that it is raised less intensively than chicken.
“We market free-range and chicken coop guinea fowl imported from France. Customers have a choice and, as with chicken, free-range chicken is more expensive.
“We import about one pallet per month and sell it in different cuts – fillets, supremes and whole birds. If it’s bred less intensively, customers are willing to pay a bit more,” adds Gooch.
“As far as I know, British guinea fowl is not available on a commercial scale. When we tried to store it, we couldn’t find anyone who produced it.
“If you exploit it and don’t have a buyer, you could lose a lot of money, so you need an outlet before you sell it. It must also be killed in a slaughterhouse certified for guinea fowl.
The Wild Meat Company sells free-range guinea fowl for £13.95 per bird and barn-raised for £9.95.
The meat is more widely consumed in France, says Mr Gooch. “France has a big food culture, unlike the UK where McDonald’s, fish and chips and Kentucky Fried Chicken are popular.”
View of the farm store
Kimbers Farm Shop, near Wincanton, Somerset, imports guinea fowl from France via its game dealer. But the owners would like to source poultry produced in Britain, if they could find any, says his partner Naomi Kimber.
“We are always looking to buy locally for sustainability reasons and have tried Google searches, but we cannot source UK guinea fowl.”
She thinks French consumers are more connected to agriculture than those in the UK.
“The path [the French] the inheritance system works means more townspeople have a greater connection to the countryside and knowledge about the different types of meat.
The farm shop sells around 20 or 30 guinea fowl a month across the UK, says Ms Kimber. “We tend to sell the most during game season. We also sell a lot at Christmas.
Business in the farm shop in general has increased by 50% since Covid, which boosted guinea fowl sales, she adds. “More people are looking at guinea fowl on the website and trying it.”
The former producer’s point of view
After 10 years of hard work trying to put British quail on the map, Norfolk Quail stopped producing quail meat last October due to market volatility caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It was an extremely difficult decision to make, but in hindsight, thank God, we stopped.
“With the sharp increase in production costs, including the increase in overhead, the price should be so high that customers would not have paid for it,” says director Ellie Savory.
The unreliability of couriers played a big role in the decision to cease production, says Ms. Savory.
“There is no compensation on perishable products in any courier, so when they did not deliver on time and the product was spoiled, it was us, the supplier, who had to replace it .
“Service was tricky before Covid, but as driver shortages became such an issue, we were left without a reliable delivery mechanism.
“And with one product, it wasn’t viable to create our own national network.”
The pandemic-fueled failure of restaurants supplied by Norfolk Quail and others wanting payment terms of 60 to 90 days contributed to the decision to cease production, Ms Savory says.
“We have paused and believe that unless we find a suitable distributor to undertake all marketing and distribution, we are unlikely to resume production.”
Britain’s farming industry is very different from that in Europe, where farmers are more supported by governments and people who value local produce, she adds.
“Our supermarkets insist on high profit margins, continually reducing the prices they pay to suppliers and producers, which makes it unviable for farmers.
“In the egg and pork industries, many farmers are going bankrupt or operating with huge losses.
“Perhaps if supermarkets cut their profit margins by as little as 5%, producers could be paid a fair bit more to stay in business.
“There is a food crisis looming and it seems to us as farmers that little is being done by the government to intervene and prevent it from happening.
“Food safety in the UK should be a priority, but unfortunately it seems the profits of supermarkets and their stakeholders are all that matters,” says Ms Savory.