Ducks: introduction

What are ducks?

Domestic ducks are small waterfowl raised to produce eggs, meat or down. They are also kept for their ornamental value or as pets. There are many species of wild duck but domestic ducks, with the exception of the Muscovy, are descended from the Mallard. The domestic Muscovy is descended from the wild Muscovy duck of Mexico and south America. Ducks descended from the mallard were domesticated at least 4,000 years ago, most breeds have a reduced ability to fly and reduced aggression and territorial behaviour compared to the Mallard and less of a tenancy to incubate and hatch eggs.

mallard

Domestic duck breeds (apart from Muscovies) are all descended from wild mallards.

Globally chickens are more popular than ducks for food production, as chicken meat and eggs are far cheaper to produce. Ducks, however, are reputed to be more affectionate and intelligent than chickens. There are many breeds of domestic duck with varying characteristics. The most popular egg-laying duck is the Khaki Campbell, which can lay up to 250 eggs per year – more than most chickens. The most popular meat duck is probably the Pekin, and many ducks (including the Pekin) can be kept for both meat and eggs. The Call duck is a popular small ornamental duck which is also kept for meat and eggs. Many breeds are now bred for competition at shows and the focus on appearance rather than utility has had a detrimental effect on the productivity and vigor of some breeds.

Call Ducks on the pond in the forest garden at Garden cottage (pic Graham Bell, Garden Cottage)

Call ducks can be a good choice for a small garden and won’t mess up the pond too much (pic Graham Bell, Garden Cottage).

What are the benefits of keeping ducks?

You can produce meat and eggs in your own back garden; food miles don’t get much lower than that! You can also be sure that your eggs have been produced in an ethical sustainable way. Duck eggs have a stronger flavour than chicken eggs. most people prefer the taste of a boiled hen egg to a boiled duck egg, but duck eggs are excellent for baking, scrambling and omelets. They also contain more protein, calories, vitamins and minerals than chickens’ eggs, so they’re good value – although they also contain more saturated fat.

Ducks can also be used for pest control in the garden. Unlike chickens they prefer munching in invertebrates to plants and never tire of the taste of slug. Some breeds are more effective at this than others, better foragers with more of a taste for slugs and less of a taste for veggies. Tthe most commonly recommended are Khaki Campbells and Indian Runners. More on that subject here.

An Indian runner duck with a pile of snails (pic: Lesley Anderson)

Ducks are well suited to the British climate; they don’t mind the cold and enjoy the rain. They are generally very hardy and suffer less parasite problems than chickens. Many people claim they are more intelligent and friendlier than chickens, they will certainly provide you with hours of feathery fun and entertainment.

What can I do?

Getting started

If you know someone who keeps ducks, ask if you can hang out, help and talk. Books are great for theory, but there’s nothing like hands-on experience. There are a bewildering number of duck breeds to choose from. They vary in their ability to produce eggs and meat, the space they need, whether they can fly, whether the will sit on and hatch a clutch of eggs and how much mess they make. You can find a good guide to the major breeds here.

aylesburys

Aylesbury ducks take a bath.

Once you have decided on a breed you can find local duck breeders to buy ducklings, adult ducks or fertile eggs. If you want young ducks close to the onset of egg laying you are looking for ducks around 16-20 weeks old. Here’s a list of duck breeders in the UK by county, or you can search online. There are many facebook groups where poultry are bought and sold. You can pick up Aylesbury ducks (meat) or Khaki Campbells (eggs) easily, but you may have to go a bit further afield for specialist breeds. In some cases the only way to get the ducks you want may be to buy fertile eggs and hatch them yourself.

Hatching and raising ducklings is not hard to do with a little research. Unless you have a broody hen you will need to buy and incubator and a heat lamp. You will need an indoor space  for the ducklings until they are ready to go outside, although this could be a draft proof shed. See our links section for sources of more information.

Raising ducklings is not hard to do with a bit of research – and they are cute! (Pic: Lesley Anderson)

You will need at least 2 ducks, preferable 3 or 4. Ducks can live alongside chickens but they will not integrate into the flock and need other ducks for company. Drakes (male ducks) can usually be kept together and tend not to fight like cockerels but if you keep females too you will need at least 3 females for every drake. In some cases you might find you need 5 or 6 females per drake. If you have multiple drakes with too few females the girls will be harassed and overmated.

If you want to keep ducks, you have to be prepared for a bit of mess. Chickens produce 70% of their manure at night, so it’s all in one place, in the coop, and it’s reasonably solid, so it can be swept up and deposited on the compost heap easily. But ducks poo all day, anywhere they feel like it, and it’s much wetter. So you might have muck brought into the house on shoes – especially if you have kids. It’s still good for the compost heap / garden / allotment though.

Lovely video about raising ducklings from eggs to six weeks old.

Housing

Ducks need about as much space as chickens – if they’re in a pen, they need a minimum of 4m² per animal. If they’re completely free-range, they need to be shut in at night to protect them from foxes. If you are relying on a fence for fox protection it should be 6 feet high and either dug into the ground at the base, or extending outward from the base across the ground for a couple of feet.

duck-house

A floating duck house – still not completely fox-proof as a fox will swim if there’s food involved.

Ducks need a house with a flat floor, not a perch, they can cope with steps but not ramps. They huddle together at night and don’t need a great deal of space to sleep in. Most people put straw, wood shavings or newspaper on the floor, sweep it out regularly and add to the compost heap. Others operate a ‘deep litter’ system where new bedding is added and the house is only cleared out once or twice a year, this can provide extra warmth in winter. You can provide nest boxes for ducks to lay their eggs, and they may or may not use them – they might just lay their eggs anywhere they like, and you have to find them.

duck-pond

It’s not essential for ducks to have a pond, but they’ll love it if you do; they’ll turn the banks into a mudbath and decimate wildlife though.

Water

Ducks don’t need a full size pond, as long as they have a bath of water (maybe an old baby bath) to splash about in. Some sources claim they only need water deep enough to dip their heads in, however this deprives them of one of their favourite activities.  It also puts them at risk of external parasites as they cannot clean themselves effectively. Ducks need access to clean water at all times, so if they have a rather muddy pond make sure they have a basin full of clean water as well. If you do have a pond, that’s great, as they do like them, but they’ll make the water and the sides of the pond messy and muddy, and they will eat the frogs. A point to remember is that ducks mate on water, so if you want to breed your own as well as keeping ducks, you will need a pond.

Indian runner ducks play with a ball in their paddling pool.

Feeding

You can buy mash or pellets to feed your ducks from agricultural suppliers. This is commercial compound feed, made of various grains. You can get compound feeds that don’t contain soya, they’re more expensive, but here’s why you may want to. Make sure the food you give them isn’t powdery or sticky, as it can clog their nostrils. Different feeds are available for the different ages. Generally starter is given for the first 2-3 weeks, then grower until 20 weeks, then layer. A layer ration can be too high in protein and calcium for drakes, people often compensate for this by making wheat available for their drakes.

indian-runner-ducks

Indian runner ducks

With a little research you can mix your own feed using grains, legumes, seeds, meal worms and fresh vegetables. This can be a great way to reduce food miles and avoid ingredients you consider unsustainable. You need to make sure the feed has appropriate levels of calories, protein and calcium. Other requirements are likely to be met as long as your ducks have the opportunity to forage for their own food as well. You can make sure your ducks get enough calcium by feeling oyster shell. You should also make sure your ducks have access to grit. Lastly, it is extremely important that your ducks have access to water whenever dry food is available.

Health

Ducks tend to be quite healthy, and suffer from fewer problems than chickens, but here’s some information on duck ailments and what to do about them. Ducks suffer less from parasites than other poultry but six monthly treatment for worms is recommended – in autumn and spring before and after laying. Talk to your agricultural supplier or vet for the best products to use. As many of the parasite ducks suffer from are transferred from earthworms they cannot be managed entirely by pasture rotation and monitoring the number of worm eggs in their droppings. In fact parasite problems are more common in free range ducks. Ducks rarely need treatment for external parasites if they are otherwise health and have access to clean water.

khaki-campbells

Khaki Campbells – two drakes and a duck.

Meat production & slaughter

It is legal to slaughter ducks at home for consumption by yourself and your immediate family provided it is done humanely. While the methods are the same, ducks have tougher necks and are harder to kill than chickens. If this is something you want to do, it is advisable to get the help of an experienced person or to attend a course on humane slaughter. See the Humane Slaughter Association for more information.

Plucking and butchering are not difficult skills to learn and there are many online articles and videos to help you with this process. Ducks are harder to pluck than chickens, for this reason they are often slaughtered before 8 weeks, or skinned if they are killed later.

ducks-chickens

Ducks and chickens get on well.

For the smallholder, supplying small numbers of birds directly to consumers or to local retailers, it is also possible to slaughter and process your birds on farm, although you must register with your local authority. The humane slaughter association is a good source of information on methods, equipment and courses to attend.

If you plan to produce meat for sale and you slaughter the birds yourself, or send them to a slaughter house but take on the butchery yourself, you will need to follow hygiene regulations and have your premises inspected by Environmental Health on a regular basis. Contact the Food Standards Agency for further information.

duck-chicken-quail-egg

A duck egg compared to a chicken and a quail egg.

Paperwork and regulations

You have to register with DEFRA and standard regulations apply if you keep more than 50 ducks / hens or a mix of both. There are no regulations for people keeping fewer than 50 birds.

You can sell your eggs at the ‘farm gate’ – which applies even if your gate is on a terraced house in town; but you’re not allowed to grade them or sell them through a shop without registration. You can allow people to pick their own, however, so they choose whether to buy large or small eggs.

Check our links page for much more information on keeping ducks.

 

Thanks to John Harrison of the Poultry Pages for information.


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