The ducks have unionised. I’m sure they have. They have gone on strike and stopped laying. Instead they are walking around the place looking delicious and refusing to lay eggs and earn their keep (apart from attacking the slug and insect population to be fair). Even the broody duck has gone off the eggs. She was simply teasing us with all this talk of ducklings. As for the drake? He also seems to be on strike. They even have their own protest chants, which seem to boil down to demanding more grain. I think they are walking a very fine line. Something needs to be done with these layabouts. Mr. Fairweather thinks that they are moulting and will resume laying once the moult is done….
To add to the mix, Boris the hen has gone broody and every morning has to be turfed off the nest box. I went consulting my experts to see what should be done.
Could we put her sitting on duck eggs?
Should we get her fertilised hen eggs for sitting on?
Would she simply decide one day to not be broody?
Time is the answer. And the timing is all wrong. Do we really want little delicate chicks hatching coming into winter with its short, wet days and long, cold nights? And hens sit for twenty-one days whereas a duck sits for twenty-eight days. There are ways and means to convince her to sit for longer on the eggs but it’s very labour intensive. If and when the ducklings hatched out, she would try to teach them to be hens when they really needed a duck to teach them how to be ducks. Besides, she’s a young hen and would probably wear herself out sitting on the nest with no food or water or else be too flighty to mind the eggs properly. The solution? Confine her somewhere for a couple of days with plenty of water and feed her before letting her back in to the hen run. If she goes back to the nest box, repeat the process for another day and night.
This has all got me thinking. Why have we got hens and ducks? What are we keeping them for? Do we need both? And do we have the right types?
Hens are fairly straightforward. You want eggs, get a couple of hens. Simple? Not so, not so. Hens require slightly more complicated housing than ducks. They are more prone to disease and fall foul of these quicker and are less likely to recover. They are quite susceptible to hot and cold and wet – is there anything as miserable looking as a wet hen? And they don’t even lay every day. They lay on a twenty-six hour day cycle. In the winter time with its short, dark days, they’ll give up laying altogether. We have a guard dog with a personal vendetta against Mr. Fox so we let our chickens and ducks range freely during the day but the hens are not as good at foraging as the ducks who are enthusiastic hunters to say the least. Hens are however entertaining. And they don’t require a pond. Just a spot to make a bit of a dust bath. But don’t let them near the flower beds or vegetable patches. Boris and her crew have destroyed some of my lovely pots outside the door.
So what about ducks? Obviously ducks take to the bad weather much better than hens and will happily splash about in the worst rain. They see better in the dark and will forage for longer hours than hens. Because they forage better and for longer, the ducks need less feeding than the hens – although ours would quite vocally insist otherwise. Ours usually head back to the pen in the evening easily enough. And if they aren’t there waiting to be put in, they are easily herded or even led in. A line of ducks waddling down our duck highway (fancy name for a strimmed lane leading to the duck pen) always brings a smile to my face. Ducks need water though. You can keep a lot of duck breeds with only water for drinking and cleaning their sinuses out but they are much happier with water for swimming. It doesn’t have to be a big fancy pond – an old kayak sawn in half would do the trick. But Aylesburys need swimming water to raise fertility levels. Don’t ask me why. Between splashing in the water, rooting in the mud they have made from splashing, and their poo, they do make more of a mess than hens. But have you ever heard a duck fart – hilarious!
The Aylesbury ducks that we have are really table birds and not known for their laying abilities although they have surprised us. But a good laying duck will outlay a laying hen; with bigger and tastier eggs. On that note, duck eggs are delicious and once you are used to free-range hen eggs, you will be fine with duck eggs.
We opted for dual purpose Light Sussex hens and I think I am still sticking with that. I do think that we should get a cockerel though. Even if just to replace stock. Otherwise we will always have to be buying more hens as our original stock die off or give up the ghost of laying. Did you know hens usually only lay productively for the first year or two? Then we might have them for the pot. I can do a lot with a chicken and have a couple of knock out roast chicken recipes. But I think we are going to need to build them a pen or a run. Otherwise I am never going to have any flowers or vegetables left.
More people like hen eggs. Or maybe I should say that more people are a bit wary of duck eggs than hen eggs. So having hen eggs for trading is probably going to get us further. But we’ll need good laying ducks to keep us going when the hens stop for the winter. That puts Aylesburys out of the running. They are also a bit more difficult to breed. But that first drake was awful tasty. And it would be nice to have a bit of duck fat for cooking with. So I guess we are looking at another dual-purpose bird for our ducks. I am toying with Campbells. They are good layers, giving on average 275 to 325 eggs a year, good foragers, good sitters and will hatch out their own eggs and put on enough meat to make them a viable option for the table. But the Aylesbury are definitely the winner if I just want ducks for meat. Maybe both? Going to need a bigger pen. And more water.
So, what exactly have we decided? I’m not sure either.
- In spring, we’ll get a Light Sussex cockerel.
- If we get another hen house, we’ll get a couple more Light Sussex hens.
- If they breed, we’ll dispatch a few every so often for the dinner pot.
- We’re going to dispatch these Aylesburys for the freezer.
- We are going to get some Khaki Campbells for eggs – maybe four or five hens and a drake.
- If they are breeding, we’ll try one for the table to see if they are worth keeping for meat.
- We may get some more Aylesbury ducklings to rear till 14 weeks and then dispatch them for the freezer in batches.
- Winter projects will involve new bigger pens for everyone.
I better break all this to Mr. Fairweather gently……..