The hard work is done, the wild ducks are thriving in abundant cover with plenty of nutritious insect food — all is in place for a great season
As I write, in mid-august, big balls of hail have just fallen from the sky and with plenty of soggy wheat to harvest it is still too early to tell how well the wild pheasants and partridges have done on our little Wiltshire rough shoot. However, I am very happy to report that the wild ducks on our water meadows have done terrifically well. All summer long I have been seeing big broods of mallard, gadwall and tufted duck — not so much on the main river, but certainly on our flightponds and along the water-filled channels that radiate across the meadows.
For those interested in producing wild ducks for sport, the sight of a large trip of fluffy young ducklings frantically paddling along behind their mother is only bettered by seeing those same young ducks taking to the wing with her a couple of months later. And that is the heartening sight that I have witnessed time and again this summer — we have lots of strong-flying young ducks.
As with wild game birds, there are several critical factors that must be addressed if wild ducks are to breed well. This year, partly by luck and partly by judgement, everything fell into place. Though totally out of our control, the weather — so often the deciding factor between good breeding years and bad ones — has been kind to us, with the mild spring encouraging an early flush of nesting cover and nutritious insect food, and summer rain maintaining good duck-breeding habitat.
Adult ducks need to be in good condition to breed well. This year, we ran the auto feeders on our flightponds and hand-fed our splashes well into March, which helped resident dabbling ducks such as mallard and gadwall. As spring unfolds, so breeding pairs settle in areas containing good nest cover and shallow, invertebrate-rich water.
The females then switch from their winter diet of seeds and vegetation to one high in protein. This helps them get into good breeding condition, and with egg production. Eggs from ducks with a highprotein diet contain larger yolk reserves for the developing duckling. Needless to say, strong ducklings survive much better than weaklings do.
Alongside the main river and main carrier we have a few miles of watercourses and ditches that carry water across the meadows. This abundance of quality “edge” habitat provides lots of potential duck-breeding territories. Most are flanked by thick vegetation — sedges, rushes and willowherb — that provides good nesting cover. The channels always contain water during the spring and summer months, and in-stream plants such as water dropwort, water parsnip and fool’s watercress thrive here, offering plenty of tangled cover in which vulnerable young ducklings can hide.
These same channels also provide excellent feeding areas for parents and ducklings alike. The shallow waters are crammed with freshwater shrimps, snails, water boatmen, caddisfly larvae and midge larvae. Often, it is the paucity of good brood-rearing habitat that results in poor duckling survival, but we are certainly not short of that. With hungry fish virtually absent from the shallow hatch-managed channels, there is plenty of protein-rich invertebrate food to help foraging ducklings grow fast and strong.
Also, last winter, the farm renewed a long section of barbed-wire fence along the east side of our main flightpond. This involved the felling of almost 100m of willow trees that had shaded out marginal plants and degraded otherwise excellent brood-rearing habitat. With the willows gone, the marginal plants romped away in the silt, providing cover and access to lots of hatching midges and bloodworms — a brilliant food source for young ducklings. On that one pond alone I saw four different mallard broods, two broods of gadwall and two of tufted duck.
“Not surprisingly, wild ducks breed much better when predators are controlled”
Not surprisingly, wild ducks breed much better when predators such as foxes, crows and mink are controlled. I am certain that a more incisive Larsen trapping campaign this year really helped us, as did spending more time shooting foxes from high seats. Following a fruitful period of mink-trapping several years ago, we have seen no sign of them since but with several mink rafts about we remain vigilant.
Mike Short is an ecologist at the GWCT. He is a keen angler, deer stalker and forager, and helps to run a wild bird rough shoot in Wiltshire.
Kind weather, plenty of insect food and good habitat have helped the mallard breed well this year