Keep ducks to help manage garden pests

Keep ducks to help manage garden pests

Ducks are easy to keep, hunt down orchard pests and give tasty eggs

If you have a small orchard or area of soft fruit bushes the ultimate organic bug busters are a small flock of ducks. Not only do they eat larvae, which would decimate your crop, and lay the most fantastic eggs but they have fantastic personalities and provide hours of entertainment. Most domestic ducks originate from the wild Mallard, with the exception of the Muscovy, and are thought to have been domesticated by the Egyptians as far back as 1350BC. They are easy to look after and more than reward the little bit of work with delicious eggs and effective pest control. They don’t scratch the earth like chickens do but they will flatten the ground if they are housed in too small a space. They can live to be 15 years old so they are a long term commitment.

Before you get your ducks make sure you have adequate housing; a sturdy hut raised up off the ground with a gently sloping ramp for access. If it is raised off the ground rodents won’t be able to make their home underneath. You don’t need perches as ducks sleep on the floor. Make sure if you have a cat or dog they won’t be able to get in with the ducks as they are easily alarmed, which will affect egg production. Don’t put wire mesh on the ramp or duck-house floor as they can get their toenails caught which can result in the nails being pulled off. Make sure the door shuts securely and is predator proof as foxes, mink and badgers will make it their mission in life to have the ducks for dinner. Ensure there is ventilation when the door is shut, put sturdy small mesh over the window. Scatter some sawdust on the floor and replace it every week. Make sure the orchard or outside area is also predator proof as foxes can strike during the day, especially in urban areas. They need to be put to bed at night, but they are easily herded and if they are fed when they go to bed will soon get into a routine and eventually come home by themselves.

Damson orchard, Lyth Valley, Cumbria

Damson orchard, Lyth Valley, Cumbria

They will also need some water in which to swim and clean themselves. Make sure it is deep enough for them to duck their heads under the water and splash the water onto their backs. It doesn’t need to be a stream or large pond but that would be preferable. Sink the water container slightly into the ground and put a ramp into the pool for them to enter and exit easily. The water will need changing regularly as they soon make a mucky mess. A good idea is to put smooth shingle around the pool otherwise it will soon be a quagmire. Ducks have extremely good vision and can see almost 360 degrees, but they don’t have any tear ducts so need clean water to wash out their eyes. They also need clean water to keep their feathers weatherproof.

The reason for keeping the ducks will influence the breed you eventually buy. Duck eggs are larger and richer than hen eggs and make fantastic cakes. If you want a good supply of eggs then go for the Runners or Khaki Campbells as they can lay up to 200 eggs in a season. They don't lay through winter. The Runner is a tall upright duck which runs instead of waddling. It comes in a variety of colours but can be a bit flighty. The Khaki Campbell is a medium sized brown duck which is fairly easy to handle. If you also want them for table birds the Aylesbury would be a good choice as it is the heaviest and one of the quietest, but their egg production is poor, 50 – 100 eggs a year. This is the typical white duck with an orange beak. If their main purpose is pest control then it wouldn’t matter which breed you choose. Ducks tend to lay anywhere but if you keep them in to mid-morning then hopefully they will have laid before you let them out. Keep collecting any eggs laid outdoors otherwise if left the female will eventually start sitting once she has a nice clutch; if you want to increase the flock then this is no problem apart from the fact that she will be vulnerable to predators.

If you live in an urban area is noise going to be an issue? Ducks don’t make as much noise as a cockerel would but Call Ducks are quite noisy so would be better suited to a rural setting. Call Ducks are poor layers, only 25 – 75 eggs in the summer months. They are used mainly by hunters to ‘call in’ wild ducks. They are a small cute duck which come in a variety of colours. They do need their wings clipped as they can fly away, whereas the Aylesbury, Khaki and Runner are all flightless. If there could be a problem with noise don’t let the ducks out in the morning until a reasonable hour. Muscovy ducks are the quietest but lay very few eggs, however they are very attractive and would keep the orchard clear of pests.

How many ducks you buy would depend upon how much space you have to let them roam. Too many in too small a space would soon turn the ground into a slippery mess. Don’t buy just one duck as they love company and it wouldn’t thrive by itself. If you have drakes make sure you don’t have more than one drake to 5- 6 females. Too many drakes will fight over the females at mating time, often causing injury to her. If you breed your own and end up with too many drakes keep them in a separate pen to fatten up for the table. A list of breeders can usually be found in the classified ads section of smallholding or poultry magazines.

Two ducklings

If you start with ducklings they will have to be housed somewhere warm until they start to feather. If possible feed them with specialist duckling crumbs as chick crumbs are often medicated which can make ducklings seriously ill. A farm feed supplier may have to order these for you so make sure you enquire well in advance of buying the ducklings.

Adult duck food is essential as hen food also contains coccidiostats which can be toxic for ducks. Again go to the farm feed store before you bring them home as they may not routinely stock duck food. If you are keeping them for egg production a balanced diet with a protein content of at least 16% is essential. An adult duck will need 170 – 200g (6 – 7oz) of concentrated feed per day. If you want to give them treats they would love a little corn in the afternoon. If you give too much corn in the evening they won’t eat their duck food and egg production will suffer from the imbalance of nutrients. They would also love some greens, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli or cauliflower leaves, again in the afternoon. Feed them in the evening when they come to bed and they will soon get into a routine. Put the food in a heavy based container otherwise they will spill the food and trample it into the bedding, where it will be wasted. Put a container of clean water next to the food and replace it every day. Ducks don’t chew food so need fresh water to wash it down.

Ducks need worming at least twice a year even if they are showing no signs of an infestation. Mix the correct dose into their food. Signs of worm infestation include: coughing, shaking the head, lameness, actual worms in their droppings, egg production dropping off and the duck losing condition and weight. If left untreated it can eventually kill the bird. If you have a heavy infestation you will need to dose every 3 weeks. You get more worms in free range birds but you can reduce their chances by moving their enclosure regularly to give their range a rest. Worm eggs in the droppings can be killed by sunlight if you keep the grass short.

They are excellent pest control officers when it comes to codling and winter moth, as the caterpillars and wingless females over-winter in the leaf litter at the base of the trees then crawl up the trunk in spring. They will also hoover up any beetles, vine weevils or leatherjackets. Encourage the leatherjackets to the surface after heavy rain by putting black plastic down overnight then taking it off when the ducks are let out in the morning. The leatherjackets collect under the plastic overnight.

All things considered, if you have the space, there are a lot of good reasons to keep ducks, apart from their entertainment value.


Angela Slater

Daughter of a farmer and market gardener so have always had a connection with the outdoors, whether it was keeping animals or producing fruit, vegetables and cut flowers. Along with my work at Hayes Garden World I also have a smallholding, mainly breeding rare breed pigs. I gained an HND and BSc in Conservation and Environmental Land Management, as a result I am an ardent environmentalist and have a keen interest in environmentally friendly gardening. In my time at Hayes I worked for several years in the Outdoor Plant and Houseplant areas.