Horizontal’, ‘boat shaped’, ‘white feathered’ and ‘massive’ are some of the terms that could be used to describe the wonderful Aylesbury duck.
The breed was developed in England for both the quilt industry, as the white feathers were greatly desired, and for the meat industry.
Initially Aylesburys were reared in and around Aylesbury and then flocks of the ducks were herded along the vale of Aylesbury to London. For anyone who has kept ducks, and especially the heavy breeds, this would have been an enormous journey for the ducks, which would have been herded through shallow tarry pits and then across shavings to add a protective covering to the base of their feet.
This journey became less arduous with the start of trains transporting goods in the mid-19th century, with the ducks then transported to London markets by rail.
With the introduction of Pekin ducks from the USA in 1873, many duck breeders started keeping Pekin ducks as a better commercial alternative and also cross breeding the Aylesbury and Pekin.
Over time pure bred Aylesbury ducks disappeared from the commercial sector, being kept only by the hobbyist. By the 1970s Aylesbury ducks were very rare.
Here in Northern Ireland there were only a couple of hobbyists who kept this breed and they were struggling to locate out-crosses for their birds.
In 1979 I was fortunate to obtain a quartet of the breed, which had access to a stream, but sadly the ducks hardly laid any eggs and try as I might I couldn’t hatch from them. The breed continued to struggle for the next few decades but thankfully now, due to the resilience of waterfowl breeders across the UK and Europe, it has had a revival with much healthier strains now in existence
In Northern Ireland the breed has definitely improved with a good number of Aylesbury keepers. This has created good competition at the annual waterfowl shows with four or five Aylesbury breeders competing for prizes. A good Aylesbury is hard to overlook for top awards. These exhibition Aylesburys are massive birds, filling the cage with their pure white feathers and long pinky white bills. They are a lovely breed to keep, becoming friendly and calm.
In County Armagh they are kept by David Neill from outside Portadown, who has had a great hatch from them this year.
Ryan McLaren, also from outside Portadown, and Tannaghmore Open Farm in Craigavon, which last year had a great hatch, were able to supply young birds to a number of poultry keepers.
Thankfully a number of poultry keepers from across the country have taken on the challenge of this wonderful old breed and I hope that their rising popularity continues.