All too often, parent and grandparent generations of poultry
are left out of the welfare debate. Yet it is the parent stock
of breeders and the valuable, 'elite' grandparent stock which
can suffer the greatest deprivations. Certainly, their misery
is more prolonged than that of the ducklings they never see.
Hidden away, in their hi-tec world of genetic selection for
quicker and ever more profitable growth, these birds live for
at least a year; the elite stock for longer. In a letter to
us from Ben Bradshaw, the Minister for Animal Welfare, confirmed
that the elite stock are often caged. He told us that: "Elite
breeding ducks are individually penned for a short period with
free access to feed and drinking water and visual and social
contact with other ducks." (7) However, Defra's Code of Recommendations
do not offer any guidance on how access to feed and drinking
water and visual and social contact with other ducks should
be achieved. The code also suggests that ducks should not be
kept in individual cages unless they are injured or suffering
from disease, the only exception are breeding birds. The code,
however, whilst it suggests that these cages '... must allow
for the needs of the bird to be met and periods of confinement
should be kept to a minimum', no specific guidelines on what
an acceptable size for the cage would be, or exactly how long
birds are allowed to be caged, will inevitably lead to wildly
differing standards amongst producers.
Amount of living space
Previous to this current updating, Ministry code recommended
five ducks per sqm on slatted, perforated or metal mesh floors
and three ducks per sqm on solid, littered floors. Again,
this figure included areas occupied by feeding and watering
equipment and nest boxes. Where floors are mainly solid,
any slatted, perforated or metal area can also be included
in the total. Clearly, the figures of five and three ducks
per sqm were significantly less 'generous' once nesting boxes,
drinkers and other structures that impinge on space are taken
into account. However, the new Code of Recommendations only
makes a suggestion for the maximum stocking density for fattening
ducks and ignores breeding stock entirely, meaning that they
are liable to suffer the same overcrowded conditions of ducks
raised for meat when not confined to cages.
Cherry Valley does not cage its breeding ducks, but says
they start at about two birds per sqm. Experience has shown,
they claim, that giving ducks much more room than this leads
to increased movement around the house, nervous birds and
messing of the litter (1).
Parent stock are kept for just over a year while the 'elite'
breeders - those who maintain the genetic line - are retained
In day-old to death housing, buildings are set on 3ft high
dwarf walls constructed from pre-cast concrete sections.
The 3ft height allows for the build-up of litter (2). The
litter is constantly added to for the life of the birds -
around one year. Ideally, fresh straw should be added daily
to prevent the ducks from living on wet litter. However,
the condition of litter in duck breeding units may be poor
and high in ammonia content.
Sadly, breeding ducks are able to fulfil few of their natural
behavioural patterns. No water for swimming is supplied in
typical UK duck farms. Throughout their relatively long lives,
they can never swim or carry out the many other activities
to which water is essential and for which they have evolved
over millions of years. In most systems, they may not even
be able to immerse their heads in water.
Food and drink
There are various systems for providing drinking water.
Cherry Valley recommends - and it is only a recommendation
- troughs which allow a bird to wet its whole head. They
also approve 'bell' drinkers, which provide a water depth
of just 5-7.5cms (2-3ins), which must make head immersion
Cherry Valley states that its breeding ducks are allowed
90 per cent of what they would eat if they were fed ad lib
(3). This amounts to food restriction and it is done to prevent
over-fatness leading to egg peritonitis, a major cause of
mortality in female breeders. Although the birds are provided
with almost all the food they require, it is the same dry,
monotonous diet for their entire lives.
Farmed ducks are fed wheat-based pellets, rendering the
duck's capacity to sieve particles of food through its bill,
and its instinct to forage for food, redundant. Ducks naturally
feed on seeds, plants, insects and worms on land and planktonic
organisms from water. The dry diet they are provided is totally
unnatural to the species.
Under natural conditions, ducks live in large flocks for
several months of the year, forming into pairs during the
breeding season. Both sexes act out elaborate courtship behaviour.
In modern farming systems, the males (drakes) and females
(ducks) are kept at a ratio of approximately one male to
five females. Light patterns in breeding sheds mimic spring
and summertime, with artificial lighting for 17 hours out
of 24, disrupting the birds' natural mating patterns. Consequently,
mating occurs throughout the year. This unnatural reproduction
rate leads to diseases of the female reproductive organs.
Breeding units may contain hundreds or even thousands of
birds. A planning application to Suffolk Coastal District
Council by Green Label Foods indicated that each of three
proposed breeding units would house 3,000 ducks (application
no. C99/0341- refused).
Preening is an important behavioural pattern in all birds
and in ducks involves immersion in water. The European Convention
acknowledges that they spend considerable time performing
complex preening behaviours. Feeding is followed by bathing,
after which they carry out a variety of shaking movements
to remove the water from their bodies. Cleaning movements
then remove foreign bodies and an elaborate sequence is carried
out to distribute oil on the feathers from the uropygial
gland above the tail. This is necessary for waterproofing
and heat regulation. Preening is often followed by sleeping
for a short period -and the sequence of feeding, preening
and sleeping may be repeated a number of times during the
day. Important elements of bathing are the immersion of the
head and wings in water and shaking water over the body (4).
Intensively-kept breeders have no opportunity to preen effectively.
It would be mistaken to assume that the lack of water for
swimming has bred-out the instinct to preen. Given the correct
conditions, ducks quickly revert to natural behaviour and
keep pristinely clean, unlike the often heavily-soiled ducks
in factory farms.
The fulfilment of maternal instincts is denied to today's
commercial breeding ducks. Observation of mother ducks with
their young suggests a strong bond. In the wild, the female
Mallard usually looks after her ducklings for about two months
(5). Of course, in commercial meat-producing units, the ducklings
are usually killed before this age.
Under natural conditions, maternal care for the young until
feather growth is achieved and is necessary for the survival
of the species. Oils from the mother's feathers are vital
for waterproofing the duckling's down in the first three
or four weeks of life.
Commercial duck producers remove eggs on a daily basis,
transferring them to incubators for hatching. The breeding
female continues to produce eggs - which are removed as fast
as they are laid. Through genetic selection, a modern, breeding
female is induced to lay up to 270 eggs in her 66
week life (6). She never hatches or tends for a
single duckling. A female wild Mallard lays a clutch of eight
to 10 eggs twice, or sometimes three times, a year. Her
total egg output is a maximum of 30 a year, all
of which she will attempt to hatch and rear.
References (part four)
- Richard Bird, Director of Cherry Valley’s
International Division, reported in Poultry World, Vol.
14, No.12, 1998
- Seven-Tier 'Pyramid' Duck Breeding System,
International, November 1992
- Letter to FAWN from Cherry
Valley’s Director of
Agriculture, 19 October 1999
- European Convention for the
Animals Kept for Farming Purposes, Domestic Ducks,
- Information supplied by Wildfowl & Wetlands
Trust, letter dated 3 November 1999
- World Poultry, Vol 14,
No.12, 1998, p41
- Letter to Viva! from Ben Bradshaw MP,
Nature Conservation and Fisheries, 26 July 2004