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

Tuesday 30 April 2013 02:48

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 the director.

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 water."

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 virulent.

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 vegetables."

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 free range.

* 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.

www.providencefarm.co.uk; www.viva.org.uk; www.poultry.uk.com

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