I SOMETIMES wonder why on earth do people keep ducks? They need more space than chickens, eat more food, and mess up the land in winter. In spring, rampaging drakes drive me mad.

But they have lots of advantages over poultry. Ducks happily live outside in all weathers; their housing is cheaper than a chicken house; they can be easily confined in their breeding pens; and they have a lot of sense. Show ducks where to go once or twice, and they will remember what you want them to do next time. That's why they are used to train sheep dogs. Imagine doing sheepdog demonstrations at a show with chickens!

Before buying any new stock, there are several things one should always consider: How much time have you got to look after the ducks? Do you have enough space and water to keep them? What happens when you are on holiday? And what arrangements can you make when you are back late and cannot shut them up? Livestock is always a big responsibility and, like any other animal, ducks should not be bought without considerable forethought about their safety and welfare.

When choosing to keep ducks, it is also very important to start with the right breed.

If you only want ducks for fun - not for eggs or for the table - then the smaller domestic ducks such as Call Ducks and Miniature Appleyards are cheaper to keep than the larger birds. Their appetite is smaller and, of course, they require less space.

These little ducks are kept as pets and as show birds, Calls ducks especially for the array of colour varieties. They are generally poor layers, however, but great characters. Miniature Appleyards can be good layers and sitters and, in fact, are useful all-round birds.

The larger ducks range in size from 2-2.5 kg (4-5 lbs) in the Khaki Campbell to 4-5 kg (9-12lbs) in the exhibition Aylesbury and Rouen. Khaki Campbells are the world's best egg layers and, if eggs are your requirement, this is the breed to keep. In the middle-weight range are the "dual purpose" birds. These are large enough to provide reasonable carcasses for the table, but they can also lay 150-200 eggs per year. They include breeds such as the Blue Swedish, Buff Orpington and Silver Appleyard. At the "heavy weight" end are the Rouen and the real Aylesbury. These lay fewer eggs and were originally developed almost purely as table birds. Today, the larger breeds are kept mainly for exhibition purposes. By necessity, to keep the breed characteristics, the gene pools of pure breeds are restricted.

If the ducks are to be primarily commercial, then a pure breed may not be required. See previous articles in Smallholder 2005 on table ducks and laying strains.

The bigger breeds obviously need more space. The amount of land will depend upon the size of the breed and its habits, the type of soil in the area and your strength of preference for ducks or a tidy garden. Four average-size ducks might be all right on a patch of land about five metres square (25 square metres) minimum, but this will depend very much on the type of soil and the availability of water. On free-draining sandy soils or limestone, there may be no problem. On clay soil in winter there could be quite a mess. If the birds have access to clean water flowing through their space, then the stocking density can be much higher than with limited water.

Traditionally, ducks have been reared in areas with gravely river bottoms and sandy soils. There is a good reason for this: ducks do make a mess on water-logged clay soils where the beak is able to probe the soft soil for worms very easily. Ducks also stay healthier and free of leg infections on a free-draining soil.

If confined, ducks can destroy a patch of grass very quickly in wet weather. Big birds do this faster than Call ducks which is why Calls are better for gardens. If you do have plenty of space, or the ducks are required to forage in the vegetable garden for slugs anyway, then there is little problem. If you only have a small space and want the duck area to be tidy, then you may have to invest in making a gravel pen where mud cannot be puddled.

There is no problem with ducks in dry weather and in the summer when the ground is not moist for very long and the grass repairs itself quickly. In a particularly wet spell in winter, the birds may be best confined to a small gravel, or concrete, area or a stable to prevent then doing their worst.

When and where to buy
Spring time is the breeding season for most pure breeds of ducks. Some ducks are usually hatched by Easter but, in general, breeders of pure breeds will not want to sell their stock until it is at least in its first feathers at eight to nine weeks.

They want to see how the birds have developed. By then the sex of the bird will be obvious to the experienced eye (and ear!). Females will have begun to quack drakes don't. However, you may have to wait until the birds are 16-20 weeks old before they can be sold in their adult plumage, and by then you will have a better idea of the quality of the plumage colour.

Pure breeds are normally sold in pairs (a duck and a drake), and it is quite unrealistic to expect to buy pure breeds any other way. They are produced in small numbers by enthusiasts, and the last thing they want to do is cull all the males, which is what happens in large commercial hatcheries of egg-laying breeds. It is expensive producing several breeds and varieties in small numbers.

The costs of time, housing, fencing and land are high. So don't compare prices of pure breeds with supermarket duck, or commercial Campbells and "Aylesbury."

Pure breeds can be obtained from breeders who advertise in magazines, and with organisations such as the British Waterfowl Association www.waterfowl.org.uk , and Indian Runner Duck Association www.runnerduck.net .

There are also "pure breed" auctions which sell well grown stock mainly between August and October each year. The auctions are advertised in magazines such as Smallholder, and sometimes the stock is graded for quality.

Commercial growers will produce ducklings for a much longer period. Their costs are relatively low per bird because one breed or type is kept in a flock which simplifies labour time, water supply and housing. Mass production brings down costs. But it's rather like Henry Ford - you can have any colour you want as long as it's "white" or Khaki. It is worth noting that many of the white birds sold as "Aylesbury" ducks are nothing of the sort. The egg-layers are probably White Campbell crosses and the large orange-billed ones Pekin hybrids. There are also commercial white ducks which have been sold as Chiltern Whites.

Campbells and the commercial so-called "Aylesburies" are generally available most of the year from February until the autumn (sometimes with a break mid-summer) but from only a few outlets.

In the past some of the ducklings were imported; this may or may not be the case now. The birds may be sold as "females only" since the males have been culled in the egg-laying breeds. They are sometimes obtainable in small lots at auctions where a dealer is selling a batch divided into small units. By virtue of the handling conditions for large numbers of birds from day-olds, the ducklings may not be in very good condition.

Buying at sales and markets also exposes birds to more risks. The H7N2 low pathogenic avian flu virus reported at Llanfihangel Glyn Myfyr near Corwen, North Wales (May 24, 2007) highlights the risks of bringing new birds into established flocks.

The first affected birds, bought at Chelford, are believed to have brought in the infection. However, all the birds on the smallholding had to be culled. This event also underlines the importance of record keeping - by buyers as well as vendors.

Commercial sexed ducklings are periodically advertised in Smallholder. It's better to buy direct from a UK source than at sale or auction, but a big supplier may not be willing to deal with small numbers of birds.

One can of course start with hatching eggs but this also entails the expense of incubation, rearing equipment and specialist housing. Eggs are also an unknown quantity - a risk for breed, colour and sex. Specialist breeders of pure breeds rarely sell eggs.

Getting the right sex
Ducks quack and drakes squawk when handled. It is surprising how many people have not noticed the difference, but you do need to know the sex of the birds when buying. Young ducks, less than four weeks old, scarcely quack. They can only be sexed by vent-sexing which some vendors may be prepared to do. Otherwise you will not know the sexes. By six weeks old, certain colours can be sexed by slight differences in the bill colour and rump feathers. Ducks give a good quack by six weeks of age.

Healthy ducks
Healthy ducks are lively. If you intend to buy a bird, watch its behaviour. It should be keen on eating, have sleek plumage (unless moulting) and a bright eye. Unless very tame, it will not want to be picked up. Once a bird is caught, have a close look at it in your hands. Check its eyes; they should be clear with no opaque growth. The birds should not be suffering from sinus problems (puffy cheeks). The legs should be sound with no hot swelling. Toes should be straight (not crooked).

Do not buy birds which are thin and have a sharp breast bone with little flesh on the breast. They may just need better feeding or worming, but they may have a long-term problem.

Sex ratio
Introducing new chickens to a flock can be difficult, because the "pecking order" has to be observed. A new hen can be given a tough time by the resident females, and should not be put into a new shed with no escape.

Adult ducks are different. A new female put down in a group of ducks is generally well accepted after a short period of inspection and greeting, and ducks are unlikely to inflict serious damage on each other. Occasionally, males may persistently scrap with one another and then have to be separated.

The exception to good behaviour is where there are too many drakes. Females should never be kept with a lot of drakes. Surplus males are not kept in domestic flocks of animals or birds because they are uneconomical and cause problems.

The same is true of drakes. Two or more males which repeatedly mate the same female are a nuisance and a danger, and need separating, even if this means that surplus males are put in a "drakes-only" pen.

A new female needs to be watched if there is more than one drake in the flock to make sure that she is treated well.

Mating is rather inelegantly but appropriately called "treading." This is a precarious activity without the active consent of the duck. Unfortunately, with too many drakes, the ducks literally get very run down and bedraggled, with the females failing to escape the attentions of the drakes.

Ducks can die in these conditions; they may suffer from damaged eyes and prolapse of the oviduct. Also, too much mating does not do the drakes any good either; they can suffer from prolapse of the penis. So it is best to avoid problems by not keeping too many drakes in the same breeding pen. Although it may take more time and work, ducks should be kept in small groups to safeguard the females.

However, if you only want to keep a flock of drakes as quiet pets, then they will probably get on amicably, as long as they have been brought up together and there are no females around for them to compete over. If you do wish to keep a small colony of pet drakes, introduce them all at the same time, so that they are on equal terms.

Settling down new stock When you arrive home with the new adult birds, put them straight in their new shed to settle down after the journey. Although the ducks should not be fed and watered in their shed on a regular basis it is a good idea to give them a bowl of water with a handful of wheat in it if they have travelled on a hot day. If a bird is suffering from heat stress, put it straight on to water (as long as it cannot escape).

Make sure your ducks are securely penned in a wired run to start with. If they have come from a place with a lot of ducks it may be a bit of a culture shock to move to a two-duck house. Their first instinct will be to find the other ducks. If you have a dog, and the birds are unused to other animals, they will also be upset by the new creature. However good your dog may be with the poultry, the new birds need to get used to the new situation gradually.

Most domesticated ducks cannot fly; they are too heavy. The exceptions are the smaller Call Ducks and Bantam breeds. Ask advice about wing clipping (to prevent the birds flying away) when the birds are bought.

Once they have had a chance to settle in, find out what they like best. They may have already acquired a taste for bread so feeding them a favourite titbit will make them tame. The best way to get them tame is to let them get a bit hungry. Do not leave food out ad lib. Let them associate food with your approach.

And do look after new ducks. Don't dump them on a lake with an island and expect them all to be OK. More info also about management and breeds on www.waterfowl.org.uk, www.runnerduck.net , www.callducks.net and www.ashtonwaterfowl.net