A DYI approach to duck-rearing
Graham Lorne reminisces on his duck-rearing days — a fine hobby for anyone involved in a DIY shoot, as long as you’re not garden-proud
It was my wife’s uncle who knocked on my door that January morning in 1998. He had just been asked by the owner of a large manor house if he could remove some of the mallard that frequented the manor’s moat and ponds. The problem was that the essentially wild duck often nested in the gardens in the spring, and then tended their broods on the manor’s fastidiously cared-for lawns and borders.
During the summer months, their droppings and gleaning habits would reduce parts of the manicured lawns to a contaminated quagmire, which seriously hampered the family’s croquet games. The new owners had tired of the duck intrusion. Uncle had wondered if I would like some mallard as call-duck, but I had a better idea.
Uncle’s pheasant cage-trap proved pretty effective. During a cold week in mid-January we caught-up six ducks, which I transferred to a hurriedly refurbished former chicken enclosure. The three drakes we caught went to a friend who has some flightponds, to earn their corn as pinioned call-birds, while I kept the rest. There were still a few mallard left on the moat, but the owner was happy to see their number reduced.
My problem now was sourcing a wild-strain mallard drake to bring some fresh blood into my new breeding stock. This actually proved surprisingly difficult, and I was discussing the problem while eating my lunch on a beaters’ day. My old friend Will overheard and, after giving me directions, told me to meet him at dusk the following evening.
Will’s neighbours had a couple of small ponds in their garden and, like the chap at the manor house, they were troubled by duck. The most distressing part the previous spring had been watching a duck being drowned as three amorous drakes had sought to mate her simultaneously. So, Will and I armed ourselves with a landing net apiece and hid in the hedge near the smaller pond, the owner claiming we would easily be able to nab a drake or two when they flighted in.
As you might imagine, the theory was easier than the practical application. After several botched attempts, we were still no nearer to catching a drake. Then, just as darkness threatened to put an end to our hopes, a single drake lumbered into view and splashed down on to the pond. Will was a fine game shot with the reflexes to match, and somehow he managed to drop his net over the drake, which was quickly removed and subsequently placed in with his new hareem.
The drake did the business, and the eggs I took to our keeper returned a 75% hatch rate in his incubator. Once the shoot had enough for its needs, I stopped taking the eggs and the broody ducks all began incubating once they had an unmolested clutch. Unsurprisingly, I found the naturally incubated eggs had a far higher success rate of over 90%, an average that continued year on year.
To avoid overcrowding and family arguments, some of the ducks were removed to rearing coops, and it was fun to watch how quickly the ducklings thrived on chick crumb. When a couple of bantams went broody, they were given a clutch of eight eggs apiece and they too proved to be admirable mothers.
All told, the backyard duck-rearing scheme proved quite a success and the 60 ‘garden’ poults were subsequently released on the shoot’s quieter flightponds to provide some variation to our shoot days while bolstering the wild population.
Over the next few years, we increased our flock to 17 laying ducks and three drakes. They provided us with much entertainment and we learned a lot from the experience. Although all the adults were normal mallard, we began to get a few pure-white ducks each year. As chicks they would be yellow balls of down that would eventually turn white as they grew. These proved popular with a couple of local keepers as call-ducks and earnt me a handful of duck-flighting invites over the years.
Another surprising aspect was the self-preservation instinct instilled in the ducklings, despite their suburban upbringing. The weld-mesh fence was just large enough for the ducklings to escape with ease until they were three weeks old. During this time, it became the norm for them to leave their concerned mothers and go for a browse in the flower beds or vegetable garden. However, the sight of our prowling tomcat soon had their ever-vigilant mothers quacking the alarm and the ducklings would make a dash back to safety.
One notable autumn saw a duck start incubating a clutch of eggs in October. Sited inside an open-fronted shelter, the nest was in the corner of the freshly littered straw. A couple of early frosts made us wonder if the duck would be successful, but one morning in early November we found eight fluffy ducklings following their mother around the enclosure. After another hard frost the following week, I had to break the ice on the old ‘sombrero’ pig-feeder that now served as a water feature in which the ducks liked to frolic — complete with stones and half-bricks to help them get out.
Amazingly, the ducklings were immediately bathing in the icy water before flocking back to the warmth of their mother, who sat down in the straw and spread her wings slightly to accommodate them. Despite the late hatch and inclement weather, all eight of the ducklings survived the winter. This emphasised to me that a plentiful supply of food and a safe, predator-free environment really are a major factor in the survival of any wild-bird hatch.
One last summer
After several years of having a lawn that looked like the Somme, my long-suffering wife’s patience broke. I was allowed one last summer of backyard rearing before my breeding stock were passed on to another amateur keeper.
I must admit I quite miss having the ducks around. Even now, when a party of wild mallard passes over on a windy winter’s evening, I think happily of how my backyard mallard would have called lustily to their wild brethren on such a blustery night. They were certainly a bunch of characters from whom I learned a great deal. It was a fine hobby I would recommend to anybody involved in a DIY shoot. Just don’t blame me if your missus complains about the state of your lawn