Why farmed ducks endure worse conditions than battery hens
To stay healthy, they require access to ponds and space to roam. But many
thousands of birds farmed in Britain for their meat endure appalling
conditions. Sanjida O'Connell investigates
July 6, 2006
The favourite time of the week for our ducks is Saturday morning, when we
clean out their pool. They quack maniacally, then jump into the clean
water, preening and dipping under.
Jem and Cherry are working birds - they're supposed to eat slugs in the
vegetable garden but, unlike chickens, leave the veg alone. But even when
allegedly working, they will sit on water for hours - even in a washing-up
bowl on the lawn. Their enjoyment of water, and the fact that ducks are
aquatic, makes it all the more surprising that most of the 18 million ducks
reared for meat in this country have no access to water for bathing.
"People don't realise how ducks are kept," says the zoologist Juliet
Gellatley. "They think they live out their lives on the village pond and
are shot at a ripe old age." The situation could not be further from the
truth, according to a report produced by Viva!, an organisation that
campaigns for vegetarianism, which Gellatley founded and of which she is
Most ducks are kept in sheds holding about 10,000 birds at densities of
eight per square metre, in artificial light, with no outdoor access - and
no water to dabble in. Ducks can live for 15 years, yet farmed birds are
slaughtered at seven weeks. Wild mallards, the ancestors of our domestic
ducks, rear ducklings until they are eight weeks old." Ducks spend 80 per
cent of their time on water," Gellatley says. "They play, swim and feed in
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) recommends
that ducks be kept in an enclosure allowing "the fulfilment of essential
biological requirements of ducks, in particular respect of water, and the
maintenance of good health".
Ducks need water to keep themselves clean and to rinse their eyes; they can
go blind if they can't do this. Gellatley has filmed in duck-rearing
facilities around the country, and says: "What shocked me was how dirty
they are. Ducks in your local river clean themselves frequently - they are
pristine birds - but these ones were filthy."
A review of duck welfare published in December 2005 in the World's Poultry
Science Journal said that ducks without water show abnormal behaviour, such
as head-shaking; their beaks, nostrils and eyes become dirty; and they can
suffer from heat stress.
Ducks given a choice of a trough of water, deep or shallow, preferred
deeper water. In another experiment, ducks were presented with two types of
water feeder: a nipple feeder, which only allows them to take sips; and a
trough, letting them dip their heads. The ducks preferred the trough.
Defra and the Council of Europe recommend that ducks have enough water to
cover their heads and splash their backs, but this rarely occurs, Viva!
says. And recommendations cannot, in any case, be enforced. Justin
Kerswell, senior campaigner at Viva!, has filmed at at least one farm where
the ducks were given nipple drinkers. "These are aquatic animals, given
mere drops of water."
The problem, say the producers, is that water spreads disease. Peter
Bradnock, chief executive of the British Poultry Council, says: "No
supermarket would want ducks that had access to deep water. It becomes
contaminated quickly because they suck water into their system, like
colonic irrigation, and evacuate into the water, which other ducks drink.
This results in a serious health problem." Also, ducks could pick up
strains of avian influenza harboured by wild fowl that may then turn
Neither does Bradnock think the stocking density is a problem, as it is
lower than that of broiler chickens (22kg of duck flesh is the maximum per
square metre allowed by Defra, compared to 38kg for chickens).
Unlike most supermarkets, Waitrose sells free-range ducks from an Irish
firm, Kerry Foods, which runs farms in England. But "free range" does not
mean ducks sitting on a pond and living to a ripe old age; the birds are in
flocks of 4,500 to 8,000. They can use outdoor paddocks and, although they
can't swim, troughs are provided. Waitrose is looking at the use of mobile
pools or showers. However, most trade in duck meat is not to supermarkets,
but to restaurants. There are five major duck producers in this country.
According to Viva!, more than 90 per cent of UK ducks are now
factory-farmed. Chinese food is popular, and the favourite dish is crispy
duck. "People eat duck when they're out as a treat, but this dish actually
involves immense cruelty," Gellatley says.
Bradnock says the industry is aware of criticism from organisations such as
Viva!, and is close to finalising a code of practice. But he believes that
Viva! is an unreasonable group: "They are not interested in improving
animal welfare, or compromising in any way; they simply want people to eat
Could there be compromise? Ducks reared on organic principles live at one
per five square metres. The industry says it is impossible to give access
to water, yet Soil Association-certified organisations, such as Providence
Farm in Devon, manage it.
Our pair of ducks have distinct personalities. Jem, a male, finds my
husband a bit of threat and will peck away at his wellies. It's hard to
imagine him in a shed with 10,000 other birds and not a drop of water to
wet his wings.
Sanjida O'Connell is the author of 'Sugar: The Grass that Changed the
World', published by Virgin Books
The feathered facts
* Farmed ducks are related to the wild mallard. Generally, there are two
types: the mallard-like ducks, such as the pekin, Aylesbury, Gressingham
and Rouen; and Muscovy ducks. A cross between a Muscovy and a mallard
results in a Barbary; this type, as well as providing meat for consumption,
is force-fed for foie gras.
* Of the 18 million ducks killed each year in the UK, about 5 per cent are
* Duck is not a low-fat meat: about half the calories in roast duck come
from fat. Two duck-filled pancakes can contain up to 400 calories, and
crispy duck has as many calories as a deep-fried Mars bar.
* The khaki campbell was originally bred as an egg producer, but there are
few intensively reared egg-producing flocks in the country. Defra believes
that duck eggs are unpopular with consumers because of their strong flavour
and the risk of salmonella infection.
* The first Chinese restaurant opened in the UK in 1908; there are now
4,875. Chinese food is worth �700m a year in the UK with 109 million
Chinese meals served up in this country. Crispy duck has become the
nation's third favourite take-away food.
* Mother ducks have been bred to produce 100 per cent more ducklings than
five years ago. A "superduck" has been produced which lays up to 275 eggs a
year - ten times what the amount that ducks have evolved to lay naturally.