Plants

Planting for Natural Ponds

The main priority when keeping heavy domestic ducks and geese must be to maintain sufficient grass. A few geese about the place can certainly help to keep the grass down. If your flock are destined for the festive table, overgrazing in the winter is not so much of an issue. But what if you want an ornamental area to look attractive with the waterfowl? As a general rule, if the grass in a bird enclosure does not require cutting in the summer, then you are perhaps over-stocked with birds. The fine green baize at the water’s edge will be mud by spring. A suitable resilient grass mixture will depend on your individual situation but recommended varieties to include when sowing are perennial rye grass, cocksfoot, fescues, timothy and white clover. A paddock mix can be very cost-effective for large areas, though not so suitable for gardens.

Waterfowl and plants in harmony - Morag Jones

Ponds will require suitable reinforcement around the edges. This will serve to prevent banks being eroded away, stop mud around the area becoming a problem and protect the roots of surrounding plants. Stones, concrete or timber containment will be required if the shape of the pond is to stay constant. Gravel around the perimeter helps to prevent erosion. Other substrates could include shells or broken slate. Whatever you choose, remember that web-footed workers will dibble and re-distribute your careful placement. Wood chips are generally not advised as these harbour disease and fungal spores as they start to decompose.

All plants introduced to your pens will be investigated by your birds, so it is best to avoid poisonous plants. There is a list in the sidebar (at the foot of this page if you are viewing on a mobile).

Ornamental grasses can be effective - Morag Jones

Some of the simplest plantings can look most effective; repetition is a trick frequently used by landscapers. Areas of Carex species alongside the shorter grasses will give welcome cover for nesting. Taller still, the Miscanthus family can make an effective backdrop. In large areas you could go for Phragmites, though this is also tall and invasive. Alternatively, many wildfowl keepers prefer to keep their birds in a garden setting, where planting is a matter of taste for the gardener. Pampas grass can look fantastic but ultimately it requires a lot of maintenance. The leaves are finely serrated and stronger than strimmer line, gloves are definitely required for cutting back. Most ornamental grasses and ferns will make a superb display if given time to establish.

Ideally the enclosure should be planted and established before birds are introduced. Should you have to plant after the arrival of your birds, then your plants and flowers must be protected, until they are fully established. 25 mm wire netting, 50 cm high, placed around each plant will provide this protection and prevent the plants being destroyed by the inmates. The construction and layout of the pen should be attractive but practical. Will you be able to negotiate a barrow easily, or eventually bring in a digger without flattening a prize specimen? The aim should be to provide adequate cover for nesting birds, shade in the summer and protection in the winter. Remember that too much planting will obscure your birds!

Pondside planting may not survive once you introduce ducks and geese - Morag Jones

There are very few plants that your geese and ducks won’t eat, in particular they enjoy new growth, but some plants stand up to waterfowl better than others once well established. You may dream of an Impressionist’s garden, rich with water lilies, but their buds appear to be a delicacy for most species. Plants are as important as the water itself; providing food, harbouring insects and aquatic life, giving valuable shelter, offering cover from predators and allowing sites for nesting and protection for ducklings in their first few weeks. Newly sprouted growth is the most nutritious. Seed trays of sprouted seeds are a valuable way to supplement bird diets.

In any planting scheme you could aim to create a plant profile using species four basic categories:

  • Trees and shrubs
  • Marginal plants
  • Submerged plants
  • Free-floating plants

 

Trees and shrubs should be planted back from the water’s edge to provide shelter from the prevailing wind and useful breaks from sun, frost or snow. Small trees and bushes near the water’s edge may also provide a frost free spot on the water and a supply of invertebrates to the pond but excessive shading and leaf litter will affect the water quality so should be avoided. Here, evergreens are perhaps most suitable, the many dwarf varieties are ideal, being slow growing and so not invasive. 

Nest box with backdrop
Nest boxes are sometimes (but not always) preferred if tucked into a backdrop - Morag Jones

Leaf litter and dense cover bring both benefits and disadvantages. The natural cycle of growth, senescence and decomposition can cause a problem with water quality. Many ornamental wildfowl such as mergansers pick up small sticks and can swallow them, with disastrous consequences. After pruning it is imperative to collect every scrap of brash if these species are kept. Rough areas can harbour vermin, so these points should be considered.

Marginal plants tend to tolerate fluctuating water levels. They help stop bank erosion, provide cover for birds, attract invertebrates and aid the survival of ducklings. Sedges, reeds and flags are all good marginal plants that provide an ideal habitat for both ducks and their insect food. These do need to be well established before introducing ducks unless you cover the roots with mesh or erect a temporary protective fence.

Submerged plants help maintain water quality
Submerged plants help maintain water quality - Barry Nicolle

Submerged plants and free floating plants will only survive if your waterfowl stocking density is very low. These will encourage invertebrates and provide an important source of food for diving ducks. By serving as oxygenators, they can also help improve water quality and the health of the pond.

Mare’s tail is an excellent choice of oxygenator and can be planted as a marginal or submerged plant, not to be confused with horsetail which is a very pernicious weed. For variation you might include water crowfoot, which bears attractive white buttercup flowers and foliage above and below water.

Free floating plants, such as duck weed, are an important food but they can cause problems by covering the pond completely. Duckweed floats on or just below the surface of the water, providing cover for the fry of many species and an important food source which is very high in protein. They can also help with nitrate removal, so act as water purifiers, and in summer a decent coverage will help reduce water evaporation. A second popular free floating plant to add interest is frogbit, which floats on the surface looking like a tiny water lily. Frogbit hibernates at the bottom of the pond in the winter but in the summer re-surfaces to provide shelter for tadpoles, small fish and larvae, if any have survived the foraging waterfowl.  It is worthwhile having a protected separate pool to grow on floating plants for youngsters.

Spotted Whistling duckling enjoying pond weeds
Spotted Whistling duckling - Morag Jones

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.

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

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