Waterfowl in general have wandering, inquisitive natures and are easy targets for the many predators and other hazards which abound in the wild. To be able to maintain and enjoy a collection, whatever its size, you will need to provide secure fencing. We often hear from householders who move to a property with a body of water and they wish to add birds. They will be adamant that there are no foxes, but there is nothing more attractive to predators than a confined ready meal. The foxes will surely come.

Welsh Harlequins with bespoke facilities
Welsh Harlequins with bespoke facilities

There is a lot of time and money involved in building a pen so time spent at the planning stage is time well spent. We advise newcomers to visit some waterfowl breeders to look at their fencing before embarking on an extensive construction. How you fence your birds is largely going to depend on what you want out of your collection. Are you planning a carefully controlled breeding unit for show birds? Maybe you want a ready supply of eggs for the family and premier slug control for the vegetables, or perhaps the home garden is carefully manicured and in need of a feathered element. There are different solutions for all these options.

There are many types of poultry fencing and netting to consider. Their suitability is governed by the type of waterfowl to be kept in, predators you wish to keep out, whether birds are shut in at night or not, the size and location of the pen and of course, your budget. It is common practice to shut domestic ducks and geese in at night. Most are easily trained to follow the feed bucket and will soon get into the habit of going into their houses. However, they are not as obliging as chickens when it comes to bedtime. Their ancestors would have taken to roosting on open water rather than in trees, so their innate behaviour isn’t on our side. You can guarantee that the night you are running late for a supper engagement will be the one when they are challenging! Overnight housing means an extra level of protection. You will still need fencing around the perimeter to safeguard the birds during the daytime though.
Wildfowl, the ornamental undomesticated species we see from all over the world, need to be treated slightly differently. A few may tolerate being shut in, but on the whole they are better left unhoused. Secure fencing 2 metres tall is needed all the way round the enclosure. The foot needs to be dug in and there should be an outwards overhang at the top.
Rabbit wire is readily available at any agricultural merchant

Poultry or rabbit netting is available in various heights, mesh sizes and thicknesses to suit all budgets and it is therefore the most commonly used material. However, hex netting does not have the longevity and durability of hi-tensile fencing, weld mesh or chain link and if it is not installed properly it is prone to sagging. The choice of a heavy-gauge will ensure fencing lasts longer and looks nicer. In terms of mesh size, 25 mm offers a good choice to keep both waterfowl in and predators out but it may only be necessary to use this on the lower level, with a lighter gauge for the top half. Whatever mesh you choose, having a good tight installation is vital for longevity, appearance and also safety.

High-tensile fencing will contain most domestic breeds
Hi-tensile poultry fencing is designed for the free-range poultry market and has optimum stay and line wire spacing for bird safety and welfare. Despite being more expensive at the outset than traditional poultry netting it is durable, long lasting and easy to install. One of its main advantages is that it retains its shape, therefore always looks smart. It is especially suited where other livestock are present or where there is the need to tie in with other livestock fencing. The line and wire spacing at the bottom of this fencing is not small enough to keep ducklings in or to keep predators like mink and weasels out.
Weld mesh is a good option for permanent fencing as it will last for years. Although it requires fewer posts than hex netting, it is more expensive at the outset. Weld mesh will stand up particularly well to predators such as badgers and dogs. For absolute security 12 gauge 25 mm mesh is recommended but if smaller vermin are not a problem then 50 mm mesh is adequate. Weld mesh is a good choice for use in construction of aviaries and smaller pens.
Chain link offers a strong and robust option for those who wish to fence the exterior of their whole property or create very large pens. In the long term it provides a secure, low-maintenance and a cheap option although it can be cumbersome to install. Choice of a heavy-gauge, 50 mm mesh is recommended to provide a secure boundary; however, it must be combined with a smaller mesh wire at the bottom to keep your bird heads in and predators out! The supporting posts can be wood, metal or less attractive, but more durable, concrete.
Fencing around a garden pond can be disguised with plants
There are some products available with coloured coatings if appearance is important – green, brown and black being the most popular. Aviaries are usually constructed with the intention of viewing the occupants. Matt black is the usual finish, being the least obtrusive. This is also true of being inside looking out. A black mesh give less impression of containment. Black waterproofing paint is easily applied with a roller, but put newspapers or dustsheets down to stop the spatter falling on the ground. Posts need to be protected from the elements and particularly the area just below the surface. Above ground, these too look less obtrusive if they are a dark colour.
Electric poultry netting offers a versatile fencing solution that is relatively cheap and easy to install. However, both ducks and geese are prone to sticking their heads through, getting stuck or tangled in this type of fencing. They can also get tangled in it if panicked which can result in serious injury or death. It is, therefore, not recommended for waterfowl.
If you intend to let your birds wander the garden during the day and then to shut them in a shed at night, a fence 1.2 m (4ft) in height will keep in most domestic waterfowl with the exception of call and bantam ducks that are not wing clipped or pinioned. In the breeding season these females are prone to flying out to lay eggs elsewhere and once broody may well be lost to predators.
The drawback to this husbandry system is the need to shut up the birds before dark and never to miss an evening. The fox checks on you every night!
Electric fencing options
Foxes, badgers, cats and dogs are the most common creatures to try to scale a fence to get to confined waterfowl – the fox being the most persistent and destructive. Small predators, like rats, mink, stoats and weasels, will often get in but can be dealt with by trapping. If you wish to keep small ground predators out, to keep ducklings in or to prevent adult birds poking their head through then 25 mm poultry/rabbit netting will be required for the lower level. This can be combined with 50 mm poultry netting above or used in addition to other more robust fencing choices. It is advisable to bury at least 300 mm of this wire into the ground to prevent foxes or badgers digging under your fence and for a further 60 cm to be carried up the fence. If it is not possible to dig down the wire can be turned out and pegged firmly; either laying it on the ground near the surface and covering with turf, or covering with soil for the grass to grow through. This will also prevent birds escaping under the wire. It will not prevent a badger digging through and you will need to be vigilant for signs of other digging.
If constructing a fence with an overhang, electric fencing or wire mesh are equally effective materials. If using mesh, it should deliberately be left floppy as this is more difficult for foxes to scale.
The addition of electrified wire outside the fence is nowadays considered essential, but you should always ensure that the electric wires are properly insulated from the main structure of the fence. Two strands at low level and one at the top would be a minimum. The presence of electric fencing should be placarded. 
Systems powered by a 12 volt car battery and energizer, sited near the fence, are simple and easy to maintain. You can add a solar charger to this system to top up power on a daily basis but most small solar panels will only be sufficient to prolong the time between battery charges. If using the mains supply, don’t forget a backup system will be required for when the power is down. Whichever system you choose  without a good earth rod the fence will not operate properly. 300 mm stakes provided in most electric fencing packs are not sufficient, a 1 metre earth rod driven into the soil is recommended.
It is always advisable to test and run an electric fencing system for a couple of days before you place any valuable birds in the pen for the first time, thereafter the fence should be routinely checked to ensure it is working efficiently. Small testers are available for this which show the charge being sent out and indicate its power; in addition a small light can be linked to the wire at an easily visible point, which will flash with each pulse of the fence. It is important to control surrounding vegetation to stop short circuiting of the system.
Will your fences support the weight of snow on an overhead net?
Entranceways to the pen should be well sited for ease of access and avoid wet areas. It is advisable to have a wood or concrete sill between any gateposts to deter predators from digging through at this vulnerable point. Gates and doors opening towards you are a good idea if there is any possibility of snowfall blocking access. You cannot dig your way in if it opens inwards! Don’t forget that putting up a good fence and leaving an easy climbing frame such as the gate or the branch of a tree is a big mistake, try to think like a fox and ask yourself how you would get in. It might save you trouble in the end.
Good fencing is costly, but it is money well spent. 

Husbandry FAQ

  • Activated charcoal
  • Antiseptic wipes/hand gel
  • Clean crate with fresh wood shavings always ready
  • Cotton bag to carry the bird
  • Micropore tape
  • Nail clippers
  • Preparation H ointment (not gel)
  • Saline solution (eyewash)
  • Sam splint
  • Scissors/cutters
  • Surgical gloves
  • Tick remover
  • Tweezers/forceps
  • Vet surgery contact details to hand
  • Veterinary wound powder
  • Vetwrap bandage
  • Wing restraints (socks/towels/custom made jackets)

The principles of biosecurity are frequently discussed, particularly in respect of the now possible threat of Avian Influenza.  Biosecurity is essentially the creation of a microbiological barrier to prevent contact between the pathogens (in this case Avian Influenza Virus) and the host (domestic or captive waterfowl).

The purpose of this note, therefore, is to consider aspects of biosecurity which can be put into place to protect these populations of waterfowl. Every waterfowl keeper will have a different set-up and it is possible to adapt their situation to fit in with these guidelines.

We should understand both the nature of the virus and the circumstances under which the virus can be introduced to our livestock.  There are two main ways the virus might be introduced. Firstly there is the risk of direct spread from migrating birds and secondly the indirect spread from these or another infected population.

Migrating waterfowl will be attracted to stretches of water and in the case of geese associated grazing.

The safest approach is to bring all susceptible livestock indoors and to keep them so confined for the length of the risk period.  Should this not be possible, then birds should be fenced well away from their swimming water if this is fed from a watercourse.  Efforts should then be made to avoid wild birds visiting the livestock.

An extra safeguard is to supply the feed and water inside the bird housing. Outside large water troughs must be avoided.

Having penned the birds away from water, it is an additional precaution if those pens can be netted over to prevent wild bird access. Your birds could be allowed access to a mains fed pond if it can be included in the netted area.

The virus is spread from the wild birds through the faeces. These will contaminate the edges of the ponds as well as the pond water itself and also any grazed pasture.  The precautions taken must consider how these faeces might get walked into the livestock pens.

  • Avoid walking round the ponds.
  • Do not go fishing, when clothes, footwear, vehicle and fishing equipment could become contaminated.
  • Change footwear before entering livestock pens (do not rely on foot dips).
  • Do not let dogs or other pets enter the livestock pens.
  • Always ensure the water provided to the birds is clean mains water
  • Drain or fill in any puddles.

Whilst migrating waterfowl may not visit your ponds they may be visited, for example, by local Mallard which could have picked up the virus from other ponds.

The other precautions to have in place are to avoid direct or indirect contact with other domestic waterfowl (or poultry) collections.

  • Do not borrow equipment from others.
  • Do not lend equipment to others.
  • Do not let other people visit your waterfowl.
  • Any staff must not have their own livestock nor have contact with other people’s livestock.
  • Do not visit other people’s livestock.
  • Do not bring other birds into your livestock pens (purchases, borrowings, gifts etc)
  • Do not take your birds to shows, exhibitions, etc nor bring birds from these events.
  • Do not lend your birds to anyone (eg a drake for mating other people’s hens)
  • Do not share a feed delivery with anyone.
  • Ensure stocks of feed are kept undercover in a clean, dry, rodent-free store.
  • Collect up and discard any spilled feed.
  • Don’t share incubation facilities with others.

Whilst this might not be a comprehensive list of precautions, it is sufficient to stimulate thoughts on the precautions to take.

If in doubt about anything, don’t do it.

The time to introduce these precautions is now. Don’t wait for the infection to be diagnosed in the country. Yours could be the first infected premises.  Register all livestock, however small the population, with DEFRA, who can then be expected to keep you informed of any increased risk of disease and keep you supplied with advisory notes.

If serious disease is seen in your birds, notify your veterinary adviser and DEFRA immediately. Remember, however, avian influenza in waterfowl may not make them sick.  This is why you must be suspicious of any other stock which is not yours and appears healthy.

Please follow this advice as closely as possible.

I should be pleased to help if needed. Any questions should be submitted through the BWA secretary by letter or email info@waterfowl.org.uk

Keith Gooderham BVSc, DPMP, MRCVS, Specialist in Poultry Medicine and Production

We recommend you locate a veterinary practice which has a partner specialising in avian medicine. This should be done as a basic part of planning your facilities. Some farm practices might be able to help, recommendation from other waterfowl keepers can be invaluable.

Birds mask their symptoms well as defence against being targeted by a predator. With careful observation we can detect a problem developing.

Sick birds often sit hunched up with fluffed out feathers. They may lose appetite, or simply hide away.

The topics and advice on these pages are given in good faith. The intent is to provide a general overview but is not a replacement for specialist veterinary care. If you suspect any of the following, immediate veterinary assistance is recommended:

  • Poisoning
  • Broken bones (especially if bone has broken the skin)
  • Attack by other animal
  • Swallowing something sharp
  • Significant wounds
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Eye injury
  • Prolapse (phallus or oviduct) that cannot be replaced
  • A need for pain relief

In the UK we face few restrictions as to which species of waterfowl we can keep. Only the (North American) Ruddy Duck is prohibited. This is to protect the endangered White-headed Duck.

As long as you keep them contained, that means not released or allowed to escape, you may keep all the other Anseriformes. All may be traded freely as long as they are individulally proven as captive bred. This means close ringed or microchipped for identification. Our native and ordinarily resident birds listed in Appendix 2 of the General Licence may be moved without a ring. Mute Swan and Egyptian Goose require an individual licence to be moved.

Our responsibility to these birds is to keep them in conditions sympathetic to a contented mental state. They should be adequately fed and watered, kept in comfortable conditions with relation to their size and normal habits, and sheltered from weather extremes. We should protect them from pain, injury and disease and allow them the freedom to express normal behaviour. We should do all in our power to protect them from fear and distress.

Essentially, these are summed up in the five freedoms of animal welfare. Expanded; four physical or functional domains of nutrition, environment, health and behaviour surround and influence the mental state. The Five Domains are key to the highest standards of welfare.

As the British Waterfowl Association we believe that the highest standard of welfare should remain one of our core values.

Read the paper about Fundamental Welfare Requirements here.

The clue is in the name – waterfowl. So the answer is yes.

The pond need not be huge for basic health, provided the water is changed frequently and kept clean. All waterfowl need to be able to fully immerse their heads in water, to keep eyes and nostrils clear. They nearly always wish to drink when feeding.

Clean water is also vital for bathing. Waterfowl know their survival is dependent on keeping their feathers in good condition, so a high proportion of their time is spent on washing and preening. They will have a regular routine of splash bathing, flapping, then rearranging their feathers.

Small bodies of stagnant water, especially in warm weather, can harbour disease. Waterfowl soil the water every time they bathe, so any disease or parasites present can be shared quickly amongst the flock.

Nearly all waterfowl prefer to mate on water. Particularly, the heavier breeds of domestic geese may be injured if forced to mate on land.

Geese and many of the ducks have evolved to eat grass – lot of grass. In the wild they range widely, mowing as they go. The intake of a goose is about 1/5 of that of your average sheep. Why eat so much? The answer lies in nutritional content. This varies according to the growth stage of the plant and also the season. All but the very freshest leaves are high in fibre and low in meaningful nutrition. No surprise then that newly emerged leaves are nibbled away with relish. Many people keep geese to manage grass and reduce the need to mow. There are merits in this strategy but only to reduce, not eliminate mowing. If the grass is bowling green short all summer, it will disappear completely over the winter.

Domestic ducks and geese are not always good parents, it very much depends on the breed.

Many breeders of domestic and wild waterfowl use small broody hens and have excellent results. Muscovy ducks are also used.

Wildfowl may reliably sit on a clutch. It will depend on the species as to how reliable they are if there is any disturbance in the vicinity. Some species are very secretive, like the Garganey. Others, like Eiders, will sit faithfully through all manner of civil unrest.

You will need to make a choice as to whether to lift the eggs early or leave the eggs under the mother.

There is a vast array of incubators on the market. Whichever one you choose, it is best to hatch in a separate hatcher. The bacterial contamination of hatching birds will affect any eggs of different stages still in the incubator.

The answer has to be that if you breed waterfowl with a view to obtaining birds of a particular type, then, like it or not, you are applying genetics. You are accepting that your birds are able to pass on features (in the form of genes) to their offspring, and that, by breeding only from those birds with the characteristics you want, you will ‘improve’ the next generation. By getting your head round some of the basic principles, you can save yourself a lot of time and hassle by realising what is or is not possible. If you are purchasing birds, you should be confident that the breeder has applied basic principles so that the birds you are buying are as you expect.
All domestic animals have been developed from wild ancestors by human intervention. Our domestic ducks, with the exception of Muscovies, are descended from the wild Mallard. The differences we see now have come about by mutations – random, rare changes in genes from those producing mallard characteristics, which humans have seized upon to breed selectively. In the wild, odd genes would disappear into the mass or the birds carrying them would be easy prey to predators, but in captivity they have been artificially selected for, and not only maintained, but combined in new ways, resulting in the wide range we see today.

So how does it work? Each living thing (including ducks) has a number of pairs of chromosomes in each cell of its body, carrying thousands of genes — one set from its father and one set from its mother. Since any duck receives one gene for a particular character from each parent it must have two genes for any character. Different versions of a gene are called alleles. Taking the simplest possible scenario, if these two alleles are the same, (called homozygous) there is no problem, the alleles will decide the feature and will show in that organism. If they are not the same (heterozygous), there are two possibilities. Often, one allele (the dominant one) will show itself (be expressed) and the other (recessive) will be hidden.

For example, the black colour seen in Cayugas, Black East Indians and others is caused by an allele that is dominant over the normal wild-type colour. If we use the letter E to represent the black, and e to represent the recessive wild colour, we can see that a black duck could be either EE or Ee, but a wild colour bird could only be ee. When these birds go on to breed, the homozygous black (EE) can only pass on E alleles, the wild type can only pass on one e allele, but the heterozygous can pass on E or e alleles. Thus, it would be quite possible that two black ducks could produce wild-type offspring (unless you could be sure they were EE) but virtually impossible for two wild-type birds to produce black offspring.

In other situations, one allele is not dominant over the other, so that if the alleles are different (heterozygous), the result is a form like neither parent but somewhere between, or different from either. This is called co-dominance. An example of this is blue colour, as in the Blue Swedish, where the blue results from two alleles being different, the homozygous situations giving Black and Splashed White. Only 50% of offspring from two Blue Swedish will be like their parents. The only way to get 100% Blue is to cross a Black with a Splashed White! Thus, it will never be possible to breed pure Blue Swedish, and it actually raises the question about whether this can be considered a true breed at all. A get-out here is that the inheritance in blue birds is at least predictable!

The single gene situation is not the norm — many characteristics are the result of a number of genes acting together, often one gene modifying the effect of another (such as dilution genes), so that it is often far harder to see the underlying principles at work. In addition, since there are colour differences between male and female ducks, there is the added complication of sex Iinkage.

Only 22 mutations in domestic ducks have been described so far — there is obviously much more work to do. Mike Ashton has given much more detail of the mechanisms of inheritance of some of these genes, in his articles in Waterfowl and in his and Chris’s book, The Domestic Duck. I am not proposing to repeat his work here, but to urge duck breeders to think about the mechanisms underlying their breeding programmes, to try applying some basic principles and to share information with others to add to the body of knowledge available. It would be especially useful to keep track of the numbers of different forms obtained from particular pairings.

There are two possible issues arising from a lack of regard or understanding of the underlying principles. Sometimes all colours of Calls, for example, are run together. Offspring are chosen which happen to correspond to show standard criteria for a particular colour for exhibition and sale and a great disservice is being done to that colour. In all probability the birds will have a number of recessive alleles which are not expressed but will show up in successive generations. In other words, despite appearances, they are cross-bred and will not breed true.

Another issue is from random crossing, where a colour of duck appears which is novel and which the breeder likes. It is easy to assume to assume that, by successive breeding and selection, eventually a pure-breeding line can be produced. In all probability, the ‘new’ colour only exists when a gene or probably genes, are heterozygous, in other words ‘split’, and a pure-breeding form will never be possible. 

So, if you’ve never thought about the mechanism of inheritance in this way, give it a go. It can make sense of what you see happening and certainly adds interest to the breeding side of the hobby.

Geoff Chase

Waterfowl are naturally inquisitive and will uproot and nibble any plants in and around the pond. Some native and common garden species are poisonous. We suggest that these should be avoided in a waterfowl enclosure where they could be nibbled:

  • Black (deadly) nightshade
  • Bracken
  • Bryony
  • Castor Bean
  • Clematis
  • Common St John’s Wort
  • Corn Cockle
  • Daffodil bulbs
  • Daphne berries
  • Delphinium
  • Some Ferns
  • Foxglove
  • Some Fungi
  • Hemlock
  • Henbane
  • Hyacinth bulbs
  • Hydrangea
  • Most ornamental Irises
  • Laburnum seeds
  • Lily of the Valley
  • Meadow buttercup
  • Oleander
  • Potato sprouts
  • Privet
  • Ragwort
  • Rapeseed
  • Rhododendron
  • Rhubarb leaves
  • Sweet pea
  • Tulip
  • Vetch
  • Yew

Getting your first birds is exciting but we do need to put their needs first.  Time spent on research is never wasted, so make sure you choose the right breed or species and have everything in place for their arrival.

See more here.

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