Coun­try Diary

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

Shooting Times & Country Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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.

Crit­i­cal fac­tors

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”

Re­main­ing vig­i­lant

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

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