Ducks in Permaculture

James Reid
Tuesday, 17th February 2015

James Reid describes how he keeps ducks in his vegetable garden and utilises their inputs and outputs.

Reading the above quote made us want to acquire some ducks here at Tap o’ Noth Permaculture in Aberdeenshire, NE Scotland. The idea of using the natural foraging instincts of ducks to rid our kitchen garden of slugs and snails by encouraging them to browse, was very appealing.

It is a real delight to see our group of ducks foraging through the gardens together, waddling along a swale ditch or pathway and dabbling their bills into the thickly mulched vegetable beds in search of food. Just allowing the ducks to do what they do is simple yet effective, using a biological approach to solve a problem.

Over the years we have kept three different breeds of duck: Indian Runner, Khaki Campbell and Cherry Valley. All three breeds are hardy, cold tolerant birds (important to our site conditions here in northern Scotland) and are prolific egg layers, producing beautiful large fresh eggs.

Foragers

In the garden, ducks will not only search for slugs and snails but also have a nibble on young vegetables and, while not as destructive as foraging chickens, can also damage young plants by trampling them with their large webbed feet. It’s for these reasons that we don’t free range our ducks, instead we keep them in a large, deep littered yard where we bring their forage to them on a regular basis and give them direct access into the garden only when we are there working (which is most days). This way we can keep an eye on their move­ments and discourage them from eating anything other than slugs by quickly herding them away from the crops.

Of course there are many other reasons why we feel the inclusion of waterfowl in a permaculture system is important and beneficial, there being several other key functions and yields from a duck system other than slug control. Over the years we have come to realise that one of the most valued resources the ducks provide is fertility, produced in the duck yard.

The Duck Yard

Ducks produce a large amount of manure and, being high in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, it is very beneficial for growing healthy plants and vegetables. The principle of Relative Location and technique of zone planning came into play when we positioned our duck yard. To take advantage of one system’s output becoming another’s input, the duck yard and house are located at the top of the kitchen garden a short distance from our house.

Ducks3.jpg

The kitchen garden is situated on a gentle south facing slope and the duck yard is placed above the fence line just on the edge of a small swale and the first vegetable bed in the garden. Placing a fertility system (i.e. ducks and their copious manure) above a food growing system utilises that amazing invisible work horse, gravity. We are not only using gravity to effectively ‘pull’ down all the manure nutrients when we have rain (through leaching) into the kitchen garden below, we can also wheelbarrow loads of duck manure and bedding into the garden with relative ease as we only have to push the often heavy load downhill. At this point it is either added straight to the vegetable beds right where we need it or left in a pile to be composted down for later application.

We plant nutrient hungry plants along the fence line where they make use of the abundant fertility and, with species such as blackberry, use the fencing as a support. A strip of comfrey is also grown along the fence line which we often cut and throw into the duck pen, providing the ducks with nutrient dense fodder.

We regularly cover the duck yard floor in a deep litter of straw, wood chip, leaves and any other organic material generated on the smallholding. This soon becomes mixed with the duck manure and mud (produced by the ducks as they forage) and turns into a rough compost in situ, allowing us to harvest the material and use it on our vegetable beds as mulch without much human energy being used.

We are experimenting with growing a source of duck house bedding material directly within the duck yard itself where it can be cut and added to the duck house as bedding or on the yard floor as deep litter. Water-loving and biomass-heavy species such as the common rush or reedmace can be used. Tree crops that provide suitable duck forage can be grown inside the yard or on the fence line, allowing the ducks to feed on the fallen fruit which also makes use of an area to provide more than just duck associated yields.

The Duck Bath

Another way we make use of and turn the duck manure into fertiliser is with water. Inspired by the ‘duck jacuzzi’ at Geoff Lawton’s Permaculture Research Institute Zaytuna Farm we set up a similar system, albeit a little simpler in design.

Ducks love water and, while they do need constant access to fresh water to drink and to clean out their nostrils, they don’t require a large ‘duck pond’ and are quite happy to paddle or swim in a large container or children’s paddling pool. We found ourselves an old plastic bath (gravity fed with water piped from our pond at the top of the property) that the ducks love, regularly using it to swim and clean themselves. Ducks often manure while in the water and soon we end up with a large bath full of what we call ‘duck water’ – liquid duck manure – which is used to ‘fertigate’ (irrigate with fertiliser) the surrounding food systems. We do this in two ways:

  1. The most direct, yet most simple method is filling watering cans from the duck bath and watering the vegetable bed soil with the nutrient rich liquid. When the bath is almost empty the thick sludge (a mix of manure and soil) can be scooped out and mixed into a watering can or applied directly around hungry crops with great results.

  2. By attaching a pipe to the outflow plumbing of the bath we can pull the plug, flooding a swale at the top of the garden with the duck water where, due to the design of the swale, the fertile water slowly percolates back into the garden landscape. In the spring and summer we rely on this source of water-based fertiliser, regularly watering the vegetable beds in our garden every few days, then topping up the bath’s water supply.

Observations

This system works really well for us, and our garden would seriously lack the input if we didn’t have this element in place. We have however made some changes to it over the years. For instance, if the bath is not emptied regularly the resulting sludge (leaves, feathers etc.) can clog up the plug hole resulting in a slow release of the fertile water. A thin bamboo cane works wonders but is time consuming, so regular cleaning out is worthwhile.

We have taken to draining the bath for winter as we felt emptying the bath into the swale (and in turn to the garden beds) was introducing too much water into an already wet soil and, being winter, there were no crops to use the irrigation. The bath water would quite often freeze solid so instead we provide the ducks with a large water trough which we can easily empty by hand, saving us the effort of breaking through a large bath of ice.

We have also realised that it may be best to plant a perennial crop, such as a fruit tree with an associated guild, on the bed directly below the swale to really make use of the abundant nutrient flow and, due to the proximity to the duck yard fence-line, also provide the ducks with forage of fallen fruit.

By simply providing for the ducks’ needs (water, food, shelter) and allowing the ducks to fulfil their innate qual­ities, we benefit hugely. Not only do we have a very happy bunch of working ducks that give us a high quality source of fertiliser, they help us grow healthy and abundant food for our family, and also provide beautifully fresh duck eggs. They are also entertaining and endearing garden companions and, of course, an obliging team of first class slug hunters.

James Reid is the managing director of Tap o’ Noth Perma-culture, a 3.2 hectare (8 acre) smallholding and Permaculture education and demonstration site in Aberdeenshire. James lives here with his family on the slopes of Tap o’ Noth hill, hosting and teaching Permaculture courses. www.pri-tap.com

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