Aylesbury would merely be another little-known town in the South of England without its association with ducks. The pure white ducks with a distinctive shape and flavour have made Aylesbury famous. The reason for this is that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries many people kept ducks in Aylesbury and developed the special breed of duck which became known as the Aylesbury.
The reputation of the duck grew until it was considered to be the tastiest duckling in the country. By 1850 thousands of ducklings were sent by train from Aylesbury to London, where their delicate white flesh was consumed appreciatively by the wealthy. The industry continued to thrive in and around Aylesbury until the late nineteenth century when varying social and economic factors led to many people in Aylesbury abandoning the trade.
The Weston family who had kept a large duck farm close to the station in Aylesbury for successive generations became the only surviving breeders in the town, but they too eventually had to give up duck rearing after the 1950s. People in different parts of the country began to raise Aylesbury ducks, but most, if not all, of these ducks in the twentieth century were cross-breeds. Nevertheless the continued use of the name in butchers’ shops and restaurants has led to the survival of the name and reputation, and made the association of Aylesbury and ducks lasting and memorable.
The Aylesbury duck is distinguished by its pure white plumage, bright orange feet and legs, and flesh-coloured bill. The bill is long and comes out straight from the duck’s head. The under-side of the body is parallel with the ground and the legs are placed mid-way in the body, which gives it a carriage quite different from the more upright stance of a duck like the Peking, and has led to the ducks being compared in shape with a boat. The neck is fine and long, with a swan-like carriage and the head is rather like an enlarged snake’s head.
It is not clear precisely how this breed evolved. Before the eighteenth century few specific breeds of any domesticated animal are named and ducks kept for domestic consumption on farms, which were known as the Common Duck, would have been little removed from the wild Mallard. These ducks ranged in colour from brown and grey to black, but occasionally white birds occurred as they did in the wild. By the eighteenth century selected breeding of the common duck gave rise to a white domestic duck which was generally termed the “English White” to distinguish it from the coloured strains.
The preference of local breeders for pure white plumage was probably due to the knowledge that the dealers, who came from the East End of London, paid higher prices for pure white feathers as these found a ready market abroad where they were popular as quilt-filling. Certainly great trouble was taken to keep the ducks’ feathers white by keeping them away from strong sunlight, dirty water and ferruginous soil. Another reason was that when plucked the almost albino birds had a pink and white skin which contrasted strongly with the yellow appearance of coloured birds and probably more attractive to the buyer.
The main competitor to the Aylesbury duck was the Rouen, a Breed imported from France in the early nineteenth century, which closely resembles the wild mallard in its plumage and has delicate flesh. The Aylesbury and Rouen were the two most important market ducks of the nineteenth century but each supplied different requirements. The two breeds came on to the market at different times of the year. The Aylesbury was noted for its early laying qualities, the ducks starting to lay at the beginning of November, which meant that the first eight-week-old ducklings, which was the age at which they were killed, were coming on to the market in February. They were therefore available at a time when the game season was over and the spring chickens were not ready for market, late March and early April being the peak of the season. The Rouen ducks, on the other hand, began their laying season in February and the birds were not considered plump enough to kill until at least six months old. Consequently the breeders concentrated on producing adult Rouen birds for autumn and Christmas.
The duck industry began to decline in Buckinghamshire in the late nineteenth century. The main reason for this was the general complacency and neglect on the part of the “Duckers”. This was particularly true of the small duckers who failed to introduce improvements such as the incubator, developed in the late nineteenth century, which would have made duck-rearing more efficient and therefore more profitable. They also failed to maintain good stock and at one farm, which was not untypical, stock ducks were four-year-olds. The consequent interbreeding not only meant that fertile eggs were not so plentiful, but if also make ducklings more susceptible to fatal softbill, which was practically unknown in Buckinghamshire. Interbreeding also led to a general weakness in the breed.
Another reason for the decline of the duck industry was the rising cost of duck food. At the beginning of the nineteenth century rice had cost £0.50 for 50 kilos but by the end of it the price had quadrupled. Prices continued to soar during the First World War which also disrupted the beneficial transport offered by the railway companies. By the end of the War the small duckers in the Vale had disappeared and most of he surviving duckers had large duck farms and made the changes necessary for commercial success. The Second World War, however, led to further increases in the cost of food forcing most breeders to give up the trade.
One of the last breeders of Aylesbury ducks in the county was Mr Waller, who sold thousands of ducklings in the 1920s and 1930s, and in the 1980s still kept a small flock at Chesham. In 1990 the business is being run by his son. Mr Waller’s ducks and the mounted specimens which he provided for the Buckinghamshire County Museum serve as a reminder of the time when the Aylesbury duck was considered to be the finest in the land.
The Aylesbury Duck by Alison Ambrose. isbn 0 86059 532 3
Design and illustrations by John R. Guard