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Preserving the endangered Ridley Bronze turkey

Margaret Thomson herds a flock of Blue Slate. Most of her Ridley flock was decimated by a ferret attack.

Bramwell Ryan

They are ugly, tough and bred to survive brutal winters, yet somehow the gnarly Ridley Bronze turkey has captured the heart of a retired nurse on Saltspring Island.

The sociable meat birds, named for a Saskatchewan farmer, were developed on the Prairies in the 1960s and eventually were given to the University of Saskatchewan as a gift. For three decades, the flock lived at the university, but budget cuts set them loose in what Margaret Thomson, 70, calls the great dispersal.

Two hundred birds left the university in 2008. Since then, their numbers have dipped to less than 100 before climbing up. Ms. Thomson knows: She and an Ottawa Valley farmer have recently completed the latest census for the Ridley Bronze turkey.

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Ms. Thomson was the volunteer turkey co-ordinator for Rare Breeds Canada, a group concerned with keeping heritage animals alive, when she discovered the Ridley. She helped the university find homes for the flock during the dispersal. But when she conducted her first national census in 2010, the results shocked her. The population had dropped by 55 per cent with only 90 breeding hens left.

"The situation was desperate," she said. "I felt compelled to help."

Since then, Ms. Thomson has called farmers across Western Canada to find out if their flock of Ridleys ended up on Christmas dinner tables and if not, how many are left out in the yard. Farmer George Whitney has done the same thing for Eastern Canada.

"We are stringing our beads on a thin thread," said Mr. Whitney, who raises Ridleys. "We need to keep genetic pools around especially in the face of new disease strains and even climate change."

The latest census results, collected since January and completed last month, show there are just 218 of the hens across the country.

"[It is] potentially disastrous whether it's 210 or 250 breeding hens. It's nowhere near enough for their future to be secure. A few thousand would be better."

The turkey most often eaten at Thanksgiving and Christmas comes from a strain called broad-breasted whites. Due to intensive breeding, these birds produce large amounts of breast meat and can live together in huge flocks of up to 50,000 birds. But the dark side of this uniformity is that the birds can no longer mate, need to be artificially inseminated and can't survive on their own.

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Ridley Bronze turkey meat is firmer in texture, the flavour more intense and "you don't eat as much," said Ms. Thomson. "One bird goes a long way." But they are dramatically more expensive than commercial turkeys: Ms. Thomson calls them a special-occasion bird.

Buying a Ridley Bronze for a meal will set you back $70 to $80 for one bird, compared to less than half of that for a commercial variety.

When the Ridleys of Saskatchewan needed a new home, Ms. Thomson had a hard decision: She already had rare sheep and a flock of another heritage turkey on her small farm. Raising different bird breeds at the same time can be complicated, she noted.

But Ms. Thomson acquired eggs and was soon helping sustain the endangered species. Over the next few years, she raised Ridleys, sent eggs and poults (chicks) to others and encouraged farmers and shared her knowledge.

The passion catches in her throat as Ms. Thomson explains the importance of preserving genetic lines. For her, the Ridley is more than just another rare breed. It's a lifeline made of strands of DNA. It is a way back to Eden if commercial livestock efforts tank. And it's Canadian.

Ms. Thomson says the risk inherent in especially narrowed livestock bloodlines is a good reason for a plan B. It's a food-security issue. She sees her efforts as one way to ensure a gene pool of hearty birds.

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"If you want turkeys in 100 years, you have to do a good deed today."

That's the tension in raising heritage birds. If you don't eat them – or sell them to be eaten – they become just one more pet, and an expensive one at that. Keeping heritage birds makes sense to preserve genetic diversity but the longevity of the Ridley Bronze turkey depends on whether there's a profit in raising them.

Despite her passion for preserving the breed, Ms. Thomson doesn't have any more Ridleys herself. A wild ferret wiped out most of her flock two years ago and last year's replacement efforts failed. Ms. Thomson's last Ridleys – the ones that escaped the ferret – are now sausages in her freezer.

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