Ducks, water & distorted science | University of Oxford
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Ducks, water & distorted science

Pete Wilton

Last week you'll probably have read some of these stories about ducks.

Unfortunately, whilst these reports were a gift for pun-writers, they failed to reflect the serious nature of this research into improving the welfare of farm animals.

Marian Stamp Dawkins of Oxford's Department of Zoology led the research, which was published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour, and below she tells us why the research was necessary and what it revealed:

Marian Stamp Dawkins: 'Our research is based on the idea that if we really want to improve farm animal welfare, we need sound evidence (as opposed to just speculation) about what good welfare is. We also have to see animal welfare as part of a package of other important components including human health, care for the environment and (essential but often neglected), a decent living for farmers.'

'The welfare of commercially farmed ducks provides a classic example of how unexpectedly difficult it can be to find a way forward that satisfies all elements of the package. I am not talking about keeping small numbers of ducks in a back garden. I am talking about large scale intensive farms where thousands of ducks may be kept in one house.'

'About 18 million ducks are reared in this way in the UK each year. They grow to slaughter weight in just 9 weeks and although some have troughs in which they can dip their heads, access to water for many is through overhead nipple drinkers. The ducks peck at the nipples for large droplets of drinking water.'

'Now, here is the dilemma. The commercial duck producers would very much like to provide ducks with bathing water but – and this is what is so often misunderstood – doing so brings health and welfare problems with it. Ducks defecate in ponds which means that even clean water potentially becomes contaminated with Campylobacter and other organisms that cause food poisoning in humans. The ducks drink it and it gets in their eyes and feathers. Even with troughs that they can only dip their heads into, water often splashes onto the floor, making it wet and soggy. Cleaning the water repeatedly uses vast quantities of water and disposing of the dirty water is an even greater ecological problem.'

'Duck producers and retailers want to be able to improve duck welfare but don’t know how without running into possibly worse problems. So what are they to do?'

'The foundation of good welfare is good health but for most people ‘good welfare’ means more than just not being diseased or injured. It also means that the animals have a good quality of life – in other words that they have what they want most and are not deprived of things that are important to them. Our work was concerned to help the producers find a ‘package’ that suited everyone – something that the farmers could use in a practical way, that would not have the health hazards of stagnant ponds and that gave the ducks what they wanted from a bathe.'

'So what we had to find out was whether we could find a method of water delivery that was more hygienic and less wasteful of water than ponds and still satisfied duck welfare. To do this, we needed to try out different ways of providing bathing water such as showers (hoses with irrigation nozzles), troughs and small ponds to see how the ducks responded because many peoples’ first reaction is that ducks must be given ponds, even though there is no scientific evidence to back this up.'

'So how did the ducks rank a shower (more hygienic and economical) against actual bathing in a pond? Pretty highly, it turned out. Their health was good and they spend even more time with showers than with the ponds when given the choice. We found no evidence of them being deprived of anything if they just had showers. On the contrary, showers were, from their point of view and ours, a very good substitute.'

'To ensure that our work was directly relevant to real duck farming, we worked from the beginning with large commercial producers, who have been encouraging and supportive all along because they want to find a solution to the dilemma as much as anyone else. They gave us no financial support (that would have compromised the neutrality of the study) but were extremely helpful in allowing us to carry out an assessment of duck health and welfare on their farms.'

'The 3 year study, which consisted of the farm assessment of duck welfare and behaviour, plus two large trials, was financed by Defra and was completed on time and on budget. There will be three other scientific publications besides this first one, including a report of the current state of health and welfare of ducks on commercial farms, a detailed analysis of  sequences of bathing behaviour, a study of the extent to which the birds try to synchronize their behaviour and a quantitative analysis of motivation. In addition there are clear indications to duck producers and to legislators as to how duck welfare can be improved in practice.'

'Scientists are supposed to publicise their research and I only hope that that the publicity caused by the extraordinary media distortion of this study will, in the long run, benefit the one group that the work was aimed at in the first place – the ducks themselves.'

Professor Marian Stamp Dawkins is based at Oxford's Department of Zoology