Ducks out of Water A report on the UK duck industry | Viva! - The Vegan Charity

Ducks out of Water A report on the UK duck industry

Ducks out of Water A report on the UK duck industry

First edition by Juliet Gellatley (BSc Zoology), founder and director, Viva! and Clare Druce, FAWN
Second and third edition with updates by Justin Kerswell, Viva!

First published 1999; Revised 2002 and 2006 by:
Viva! 8 York Court Wilder St Bristol BS2 8QH
Tel: 0117 944 1000 Fax: 0117 924 4646 Email:

Ducks out of Water is a campaign by Viva! For a free Ducks out of Water pack, contact Viva!.

Part One


Secrecy shrouds the expanding duck industry. World production of duck meat is dominated by Cherry Valley Farms Ltd, owned by Thai venture capitalists Navis Capital Partners (Asia) Limited (which is, in turn, owned by Bangkok Ranch Public Company Limited).

Back in 1999, obtaining information on the UK duck industry was extremely difficult, with even Defra (Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs)'s predecessor, the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF), pleading commercial confidentiality and refusing to answer basic queries about duck welfare. Today Defra is more open, and Ben Bradshaw, the Minister for Nature Conservation and Fisheries, replied in detail to a list of questions we supplied to him on the nature of duck farming in Britain today. However, what has not changed is the shocking level of ignorance and wilful neglect relating to the welfare of factory-farmed ducks on the part of the Government, suppliers and retailers.

Despite some cursory help from the Government, industry has not been co-operative in the slightest. Despite this, we have established sufficient information and undertaken detailed undercover investigations which make this report extremely disturbing. Today's duck breeding and rearing methods are as cruel and oppressive as those adopted by the post-war chicken and turkey industries. Ducks have been driven out of the fields and into intensive sheds - they have joined the ranks of the factory-farmed animal machines.

UK farmed ducks are largely derived from the wild Mallard, who naturally care for their young for up to eight weeks. Today's commercially-farmed ducklings are slaughtered before they even reach that young age - at around seven weeks.

Poultry scientists have 'perfected' selective breeding and have engineered such fast growth rates that this brief period of life offers the maximum profitability - in a species with a potential lifespan of 15 to 20 years.

Intensive sheds house up to 10,000 ducks in one 'flock' and lighting may be both dim and almost constant. Little or no night-time rest is provided. Straw, quickly sodden by faeces, must be added to frequently in order to control the high levels of ammonia and to prevent the birds from developing ulcerated feet and legs.

The lives of these essentially aquatic birds consist of pushing their way through the mass of other birds to avail themselves of pelleted food and drinking water from shallow drinking points or nipple drinkers. They can never swim. Webbed feet, evolved for swimming, and bills brilliantly designed to sieve food particles from rivers and ponds are both entirely redundant. In the pursuit of profit, the industry has overlooked just one thing - duck welfare. The ruthless exploitation of the species has been rapid and far-reaching. It is now world wide and growing, as the Asian industry readily boasts:

'Twenty five years ago, the duck market in Thailand was not developed and the ducks followed the rice harvest, as they still do in many Asian countries. Following formidable efforts by leading international breeders in conjunction with the main local producers, Thailand now has one of the most sophisticated and advanced duck industries of the world and is looking to added value products and exports to support future growth and profitability.' (1)

At the heart of this world trade is the UK-based Cherry Valley:

'Cherry Valley, one of the world's largest integrated duck production organisations, gives its growers a commercial bird that reaches the desired 3.5 kg live weight at 49 days ... Behind this sort of Peking-type duck performance from the hybrid Super M2 bird is a 20-person R&D facility including veterinarians and geneticists. Starting in 1970, this team has changed the company's original free-range Aylesbury ducks into super meat machines, each sold 13 million times in the UK alone last year.' (2)

Types of duck

All domesticated or farmed ducks originate from the Mallard, with the exception of the Muscovy which has distinct origins in South America. Farmed ducks are therefore broadly divided into two types: the Mallard-type (Anas Platyrhynchos) and the Muscovy duck (Cairina Moschata). Muscovy/Mallard hybrids are obtained by crossing a female domestic (Mallard-type) duck with a male Muscovy. They're known as Muscovy or Barbary ducks and are used for meat and the infamously cruel production of foie gras.


Largely aquatic, wild Mallards are omnivorous, obtaining their food from both land and water. They can fly at speeds of up to 50 mph and migratory ducks travel thousands of miles. Even the domestic Mallard is able to fly for several miles (3).

There are several breeds of ducks bred for meat which have all descended from the Mallard - for example, the Pekin, Aylesbury, Gressingham and Rouen.

The Aylesbury is a white-feathered, often yellow-beaked duck, bred over centuries in many countries for meat. It was named in the early 19th century, when large-scale duck breeding was carried out in the Vale of Aylesbury, in Buckinghamshire, UK.

The Pekin originated in China where breeding has been carried out over many centuries - and is now produced and eaten worldwide, particularly popular in the USA. The duck has creamy white feathers and the bill and legs are deep orange. The Pekin and Aylesbury are sometimes crossed (16).

Green Label Poultry, Suffolk, UK, intensively farms the Gressingham duck which is half Mallard and Deben duck which is patented to the company, a 'development of the Gressingham and is quarter Mallard' (18).

The wild Mallard is claimed to be the 'meatiest of ducks - high in breast meat and low in fat' (18). In order to increase the size of the Mallard, farmers use larger breeding strains. The resulting 'Mallard-type' birds are almost all factory farmed.

In intensive sheds, a duck's life is largely confined to finding feed and water points. Often these are close together, requiring little walking. The consequent lack of exercise can cause stunted bone growth and this is frequently observed in young ducks. The size of the shed can also have a bearing as ducks are very active and tend to move through the whole area. This is, however, influenced by flock size. Traditionally, a maximum flock of 200 was advised as larger flocks were known not to perform as well as smaller ones. Flock sizes of thousands are now common (4).


The Muscovy originated in South America and is robust and hardy, capable of adapting to varying climates. The male is twice the size of the female, hence its use in the production of foie gras - bigger bird, bigger liver.

According to MAFF (16), the predecessor of Defra, there used to be doubt as to whether it should be classed as a duck or a goose. The Muscovy grazes like a goose and the males have no curled feathers in the tail, which distinguish the sex in other breeds of domesticated duck. There are no feathers on the face and the skin is bright red, whilst the drake has a knob on his head which gives the appearance of a crest. The feathers come in variations of black, white and blue. Neither sex has a voice and their means of communication is by hissing. It has both claws and webbed feet. The incubation period is 34-36 days, as opposed to 28 days in other breeds. If a Muscovy is mated to other breeds the offspring are sterile. A feature of this breed is that the male is twice the size of the female. (Muscovies bred with Mallard-type birds are more even in size and hardier than the pure Muscovy. They are known as Muscovy or Barbary ducks in supermarkets.)

Farmed Muscovies have retained many anti-predator responses such as freezing, alarm-calling, attempting to take off or running rapidly away from danger, and vigorously struggling if caught. Males and hybrids frequently fight, using their claws, wings and beaks (6).

Muscovy ducks are omnivorous, feeding on plants, worms, insects, fish, amphibians and reptiles. They feed by dabbling in water, foraging and up-ending. The wild birds fly, swim and walk well. According to the Council of Europe, farmed Muscovy ducks 'presently used for meat have not undergone selection to the same extent as other poultry, but heavy birds may be unable to fly, have difficulty in walking and be subject to leg disorders.' (21)

The duck hybrid called a 'mulard' is obtained by crossing a female domestic duck and a male Muscovy. It is a sterile hybrid because of the difference in chromosome sizes between the two parents (7). It is used for the production of foie gras.

Beak trimming - a terrible mutilation

The Muscovy's beak is sharp, unlike the domestic duck's, and can inflict serious injury. It is also richly innervated (supplied with nerves) and very well endowed with sensory receptors (5). Muscovies are widely farmed in Europe and by at least one UK company. Bill trimming is common outside the UK (Viva! stopped its occurrence within the UK, though it is still legal) despite research showing that life-long pain can result. It is a pain likened to that suffered by human amputees. The scientific term for this mutilation is 'partial beak amputation' - or PBA. Defra states: 'Bill trimming should be carried out only when it is clear that more suffering would be caused in the flock if it were not done.' (22)

However, poultry scientists admit the commercial basis for this mutilation:

'Because it is not yet possible to prevent bird-caused injuries reliably under farm husbandry conditions, careful trimming of beak tips and claws is still indicated ... Parent stock are being increasingly housed under intensive conditions, and injuries during their growth are becoming more and more evident.' (The fourth European symposium on poultry welfare) (8).

Further, bill trimming is still legal in the UK, Defra states that it is carried out to stop feather pulling, the causes of which are 'overcrowding, lack of water, sporadic feeding and use of pellets' - all directly due to factory farming (16). Defra recommend that an electric bill-trimmer is used for removing the bill rim only (to prevent gripping of feathers or down) and that it should be seared at the same time to stop bleeding. 'The affected ducks may suffer pain.' (16)

Rather than change the conditions under which birds are kept, to reduce aggression, the mutilation is sanctioned, despite powerful evidence that it causes birds acute pain and seriously affects their behaviour. It can lead to a reduction in the effectiveness of their pecking and reduced feedback from the beak, together with increased dozing, general inactivity and depression.

Scientists have shown that 'debeaking of ducklings is ... traumatic to the bird as the beak is innervated up to the tip'. And that 'the use of outside runs considerably reduces pecking' (19). The Institute for Small Animal Research states: 'Trimming of the beak involves an operation on a sensitive region which is painful and may be assumed to cause restrictions to the function of the beak, at least until the wound has healed.' However they found that even if wounds do heal, 'there is no functional substitution for lost structures. The loss of Herbst's corpuscles and blood sinuses severely impaired the function of the beak as a probing organ.' (20)

In flocks of breeding Muscovy ducks another form of pecking can occur, directed at red regions, namely the cloaca of males and females. In addition, it is becoming 'increasingly common to observe females harassing males by nipping their penis, sometimes to the point of irreversible mutilation, before it has retracted after mating'. It is believed that this abnormal behaviour is caused by a poor environment and overcrowding (19).

Viva! victory

Since the launch of Viva!'s campaign against the factory farming of ducks in December 1999, most supermarkets have withdrawn from selling Barbary (also known as Muscovy) duck meat - because the birds are debeaked.

In May 2000, Marks & Spencer stated that it was stopping sourcing Barbary duck 'with immediate effect, due to concerns relating to animal welfare'. M&S continued that their causes of concern were the rearing practices - 'ie beak trimming, housing on wire mesh floors and low lighting levels. For this reason we have decided to stop using Barbary duck meat.' Also, directly due to Viva!'s campaign, M&S withdrew factory farmed whole duck in 2004.

In March 2000, Sainsbury's announced that they 'are no longer selling ducks from suppliers who support the act of beak cutting'.

In June 2000, Asda announced that their sales of Barbary duck meat would cease on 12 August 2000, 'leaving us with no need to de-beak under any circumstance'.

On 26 May 2000, Harrods issued a joint statement with Viva! announcing that they were 'withdrawing all factory farmed duck meat' following consultation with Viva! and information, film and photos supplied on Green Label's rearing practices.

Kerry Foods were a major supplier of debeaked Barbary ducks to supermarkets. Viva!'s campaign stopped this company from mutilating birds. Kerry Foods continue to farm Barbary ducks, which they supply to Waitrose, but do not de-beak them (see part eight).

De-beaking of Muscovy type ducks, however, is not illegal in the UK. It is likely that some companies still carry out this mutilation on Muscovy type birds destined for the restaurant market.

Wire flooring

Although wire flooring is not used in the UK, imported duck meat may be from birds reared on wire. Echoes of the battery cage industry can be heard in the claims of duck producers that wire flooring improves hygiene. As with any uneven surface, it can result in uncontrolled slipping, strains on legs and joints and leg injuries, including joint deformation (10).

In 1994, the Journal of International Hatchery Practice reported a visit to the Grimaud Freres company, based at La Corbiere in France. Grimaud had produced their own breed of Muscovy duck called a Canedin and were selling in excess of 35 million birds annually, including breeding stock. In 1998, the company boasted that it was selling 50,000 Muscovy-type and Pekin ducks per week in Asia (17). All ducks reared for meat were being kept on slatted floors for their 12-week lives.

Water denied

UK producers do not supply intensively-reared ducks with water for swimming. In view of the aquatic nature of all ducks and their need for water to remain healthy, water deprivation represents a serious welfare insult to them.

Some duck producers in the Far East do supply water for swimming, but the degree of intensification is inevitably resulting in disease problems.

It must be concluded that duck farming on the scale now practised inevitably involves life-long suffering through an almost total frustration of natural behavioural patterns and disease.

Parent stock

Parent stock are kept in barren and often filthy conditions for a year or more. Viva!USA has filmed parent stock that were in an appalling state - dirty, dejected and many ill birds packed into sheds. In countries such as France, parent ducks may be individually caged throughout their life (see part four).

Artificial insemination

Semen to fertilise eggs is collected from caged drakes and pooled for future use. The females are inseminated three times a week, presumably being removed from their cages for this stressful procedure - the only variation in lives of utter deprivation.

Frederik Grimaud, of international duck company Grimaud Freres, is reported as saying: 'Providing swimming areas for the parents has been found to be totally unnecessary.' (11) Translated, that means the birds survive without it.

Cherry Valley does not practice artificial insemination (12) and Defra have confirmed that it is not practiced in duck breeding in the UK (25).

Size of the UK industry

Some 853 million chickens and around 21 million turkeys are slaughtered annually in the UK (13). In the UK, ducks represent a relatively minor sector of the poultry industry compared to broiler chickens, but it is growing steadily. According to the latest figures, 18 million ducks were slaughtered in the UK in 2004 (13), growing from 11 million in 1992. Defra could give no figures for the number of ducks in intensive conditions and those kept free-range. On the basis of historic Defra information and from information Viva! has gathered regarding supermarket and restaurant sales through our undercover investigations, we believe the figures are likely to be 95 per cent intensively-reared and five per cent free-range.

In the early 1990s, Cherry Valley put its annual production of day old ducklings at 10 million. This included Muscovy (Barbary) and parent stock. It now limits its production solely to Mallard-type ducks and its latest estimate is 13 million per annum (14).

The UK, and Cherry Valley in particular, is a major exporter of stock and rearing know-how. It is largely responsible for the global increase in duck meat production and Cherry Valley Farms was given the Queen's Award for Export Achievement in both 1984 and 1994. Over the past five years the company has expanded its breeding operations in the Asia/Pacific region, which accounts for 80 per cent of world duck meat production (23).

Duck meat - the low fat choice?

Incredibly, duck meat is often pushed by producers as a low-fat, healthy option for meat eaters. This despite the fact that both chicken and turkey are lower in fat than duck. Nearly half the calories of roasted duck comes from fat - and that's only if the skin and excess fat is discarded from the carcass. If this is not done 80 per cent of the calories from roast duck will be from fat!

Duck egg industry

Some breeds of ducks, particularly the Khaki Campbell (originated from the Mallard), have been bred to produce large numbers of eggs. The market for duck eggs, however, is poor in the UK. Defra state that this lack of popularity is due to their 'strong flavour and the hazard from salmonella infections' (16). As there are only a few UK flocks kept for egg production, this report concentrates on the growing trend for intensively produced duck meat.

References (part one)

  1. Future developments of the duck industry in Asia Pacific. World Poultry-Elsevier, Vol. 14, No.12, 1998 p38
  2. Integrated duck production for 80 countries. World Poultry- Elsevier, Vol. 14, No. 12, 1998 p41
  3. The Guinness Book of World Birds (ISBN 0851 12 8912)
  4. Influence of walking distances and flock size on performance of ducks. World Poultry-Elsevier, Vol 15, No.4 1999
  5. Council Of Europe - Recommendation Concerning Muscovy Ducks & Hybrids of Muscovy & Domestic Ducks, Article 2d, 1999
  6. Ibid, Article 2h
  7. Ibid, Article 2i
  8. Welfare of Waterfowl. Rauch, Pingel and Bilsing, Proceedings of Fourth European Symposium on Poultry Welfare,1993 p141
  9. Behavioural Evidence for Persistent Pain Following Partial Beak Amputation in chickens. Gentle et al, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 27, 149-157, 1990
  10. As 8
  11. International Hatchery Practice, Vol 8, No 7, 1994
  12. Letter to FAWN from Cherry Valley's Director of Agriculture, 19 Oct. 1999
  13. Slaughter statistics, 2004, Defra
  14. As 2
  15. Information supplied by Richard Charley, Agricultural Manager, Kerry Foods, to FAWN, 2 November 1999
  16. Ducks and Geese. MAFF, Reference Book 70. 1986
  17. Future for mule duck. World Poultry-Elsevier, Vol. 14, No.12, 1998
  18. Hopper, P. East Anglian Daily Times. 19 October 1996
  19. Raud, H. & Faure, J.M., Welfare of Ducks in Intensive Units, Rev. Sci. Tech. Off.. Int. Epiz., 13 (1), 125-129, 1994
  20. Matthes, S & Marquardt, G., Histology of the Muscovy Duck's Beak with and without Trimming, Institute for Small Animal research, Dornbergstr 2527, 3100 Celle, Germany
  21. Council Of Europe - Recommendation Concerning Muscovy Ducks & Hybrids of Muscovy & Domestic Ducks, Article 2f, 1999
  22. DEFRA, Codes of recommendations for the welfare of livestock: Ducks. 1987
  23. Poultry World. September, 2003
  24. McCance & Widdowson's Composition of Foods book
  25. Letter to Viva! from Ben Bradshaw MP, Minister for Nature Conservation and Fisheries, 26 July 2004