Animal ForageBird LifeWorking Animals

Ducks in a Permaculture System (Scotland)

by James Reid, PRI Tap o’ Noth

You don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficiency. — Bill Mollison

It was reading the above quote that made us want to acquire some ducks here at PRI Tap o’ Noth in North East Scotland. The idea of using the natural foraging instinct of the duck to rid our kitchen garden of slugs and snails, by encouraging them to browse through our garden systems, was very appealing.

The ducks enjoying a flooded swale

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 Scotland) and are prolific egg layers, producing beautiful large fresh eggs).


Patrolling the garden

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 deciding to 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. And 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 many functions of the duck yard
(click for larger view)

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 and, 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.

The duck yard has close proximity to the veg garden

The kitchen garden is situated on a gentle south facing slope and the duck yard is placed above — its fence line just on the edge of a small swale and the first vegetable bed in the garden. Placing a fertility system (the ducks and their copious manure) above a food growing system utilizes that amazing invisible work horse, gravity. We are not only using gravity to ‘pull’ down all the manure nutrients, made available when we have rain (through leaching) into the kitchen garden below, but we can manoeuvre wheelbarrow loads of duck manure and bedding into the garden with relative ease due to only having to push the often heavy load of manure downhill.

Foraging comfrey on the yard fence line

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 also plant nutrient hungry plants along the fence line where they make use of the abundant fertility and, with species such as blackberry, they can also use the fencing as a support to grow on. 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 that we generate on the smallholding. This soon becomes mixed with the duck manure and mud (produced from the ducks foraging technique), turning 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.

Mix of high nitrogen duck manure and carbonous materials such as straw and
wood chips makes excellent compost

We are experimenting with growing a source of duck house bedding material directly within the duck yard itself, where it can be cut and applied straight into 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 and at the same time provide a habitat for the ducks to take shade or evade predators. 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 and making use of an area to provide more than just duck-associated yields.

The duck bath

The bath is filled with gravity fed
water from our pond

Another way we make use of and turn the duck’s manure into fertiliser is with water. Inspired by the duck jacuzzi at Geoff Lawton’s PRI Zaytuna Farm we set up a similar system to his, 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 to use in the duck yard (gravity fed with water piped from our pond at the top of the property) which the ducks love, regularly using to swim and clean themselves. Ducks often manure while in the water and we soon end up with a large bath full of what we call ‘duck water’ – liquid duck manure – and at this stage we can then fertigate (irrigate with fertiliser) the surrounding food systems.

We do this in two ways:

The most direct, yet most simple method, is filling watering cans from the duck bath and watering the crops with the nutrient rich duck water. 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 in growth.

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.

Nutrient rich liquid fertiliser

In the spring and summer we rely on this source of water-based fertiliser, regularly watering the vegetables in our garden before topping up the bath’s water supply and in a few days time repeating the process.


Great garden companions

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

Further Reading:


  1. great ideas for using all of the duck’s gifts. It sounds like they are using a lot of manure tea and fresh manure right on vegetables. It seems like permaculture systems often make this most efficient use of manure by having animals right where the fertility is needed- but in certified organic operations there are very strict rules about exposure to raw manure that make it much harder to integrate animals into systems directly. Any thoughts out there about the possible dangers of fresh animal manure? Over paranoid germ phobia?

  2. When you use the ducks bath water, do you pour it straight in the plants or is there a waiting time?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

Back to top button