Duck farms: The unknown scale of suffering within intensive British facilities

Author: Maria Chiorando

Read Time:   |  12th October 2021

Uncover the horrifying truth behind Britain's duck farms that have slipped off the country's radar.

While most people are aware of factory farming, it is usually associated with animals like chickens and pigs.

But the scale of duck farms in Britain would likely surprise many people.

In fact, Animal Aid believes people would be ‘horrified to learn that more than 13 million ducks were reared for their flesh in the UK in 2019.’

Add to that, the ‘vast majority of these animals were kept in crowded intensive conditions’.*

Animal Aid’s campaigns manager, Jessamy Korotoga, explained: “The amount of duck meat produced in 2020 was a decrease on the previous two years, but still represents a considerable number of animals.

“Hopefully, this trend is caused by people choosing vegan alternatives.”

Shining alight on this little-known industry is the UK-based organisation The Animal Justice Project (AJP).

They’re an international pressure group working to end the use and exploitation of animals on both farms and in laboratories.

AJP has made headlines in recent years, releasing exposés on duck factory farming (in 2019) and slaughter (in 2020). It is the only NGO in the UK to have placed cameras inside a duck slaughterhouse.

Investigations into duck farms

AJP spent two months (from October to November 2019) inside the facilities of one of the UK’s biggest duck producers.

According to AJP founder Claire Palmer, footage from its investigations offers a ‘unique insight into the tragic lives of farmed ducks in Britain today’.

Palmer says the majority of commercial meat ducks reared in the UK are reared in indoor systems. Disturbingly, as many as 10,000 birds are confined to live together in a single shed.

This means around four ducks are packed into every square metre.

Her organisation’s investigations into the industry paint a bleak picture. She said that while the AJP team is ‘well used to filming the abuse of animals on farms’, this investigation took a toll.

“Due to a lack of water and filthy conditions, many birds end up on their backs, unable to right themselves,” she said.

“This is known as ‘back peddling’ and it was very difficult to watch as the birds were so helpless and we knew they’d be left to die there.”

An ‘extremely cruel’ system denying natural behaviours

“By law, ducks can be reared in sheds with no windows. Bathing water is not a necessity; beaks can be trimmed. They don’t have to be provided with bedding, and a metal ball bearing-type water drinker can be used,” Palmer added.

 She pointed out there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that ducks should be provided ‘not just head only access to water, but full body access to water.’

Palmer argues that this would ‘enable them to perform their water-related behaviours fully and freely’.

 AJP’s investigation discovered that ‘ducks could only throw water over themselves from bell drinkers, which made the substrate sodden’.

 Palmer added: “In one shed, 6,500 birds had access to only 50 drinkers – 130 birds per drinker.

“Each bird gets 2-foot square floor space in this farm, yet the Pekin duck has a wingspan of around 1.5m.”

“Not providing adequate bathing and preening for waterfowl who depend on it for their well-being is extremely cruel and means the ducks cannot adequately perform important water-related behaviours.”

Why do ducks need water?

Animal Aid’s Jessamy Korotaga added: “[Ducks] are physiologically and emotionally primed to spend a significant portion of their time in water and conduct a whole range of water enabled behaviours such as wet preening, wing rubbing and feather shaking.

“The Council of Europe (1999) recommends that ducks should be able to dip their heads in water and spread water over their feathers.

“Different depths of water are used to express different behaviours such as dabbling in water which is 10cm deep and swimming in water at least 20cm deep.

“Being able to immerse in water helps them to keep their eyes, nostrils and feathers clean. Without this, their eyes may crust over [this can lead to blindness] and their feathers can deteriorate, so they lose body heat.”

She added that depriving ducks of open water is ‘akin to preventing hens from dustbathing or pigs from rooting’.

Ducks on duck farms are not provided with adequate amounts of water for swimming.

Ducks on duck farms are not provided with adequate amounts of water for swimming.

The ‘heartbreaking’ slaughter of farmed ducks

After this life of deprivation, factory-farmed ducks are often killed from six weeks of age (between 42-56 days old).

According to Animal Aid, a wild mallard, from which the white pekin duck and other domesticated breeds descend, would naturally live between five – 10 years.

Korotoga said: “It is heart-breaking to acknowledge that the only time that many ducks experience being immersed in water is when they are shackled upside down and dunked into a water bath to stun them prior to having their throats cut.”

For AJP’s Claire Palmer, frustrations reach beyond the duck farming industry.

She cites ‘inaction’ by bodies ‘supposedly set up to protest animals’ as major concerns around animal welfare.

Palmer told VF&L: “At the slaughterhouse where we filmed the live shackling and electrocution of ducks, dead and injured birds were brutally hung up and we filmed clear law-breaking.

“Birds are supposed to spend a maximum of two minutes in shackles before being stunned but our footage showed the line repeatedly stopping and some birds left hanging for up to 14 minutes.

“You could not ask for a more clear breaking of the law, and yet Crown Prosecution Service have failed to prosecute due to it ‘not being in the public interest’ to do so.

Red Tractor response

In response to these comments, Red Tractor told VF&L: “Protecting animal health and welfare is one of our top priorities and we take any allegations of breaches to our standards very seriously.

“As soon as we are aware of any claims of breaches, we immediately launch an investigation to substantiate them and to review behaviours on site. Where necessary, corrective action will always be taken.”

An FSA spokesperson told VF&L: “The Food Standards Agency takes animal welfare at abattoirs very seriously and we carried out a full criminal investigation into the allegations.

“Enforcement action was taken by the FSA and the case was referred to the Crown Prosecution Service, who ultimately make the decision on whether such cases will be prosecuted.”

So how you can help factory-farmed ducks

But in the meantime, animal advocates say ducks are continuing to suffer on Britain’s duck farms.

On top of ditching animal products, AJP’s Claire Palmer said: “We urge people to take action against the animal agriculture industry to end it.”

According to Palmer, the public must “pressurise the government to end animal farming subsidies and instead fund plant-based agriculture.”

She added that concerned consumers can put pressure on supermarkets to stock more plant-based food and less meat.

*FAOSTATS. (2019) Production: Livestock primary [online]. Rome. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: Statistics Division.

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Written by

Maria Chiorando

Maria Chiorando

Maria is an editor and journalist. Her work has been published by the Huffington Post, the Guardian, TechnoBuffalo, Plant Based News, and Kent on Sunday among other national and regional titles.

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