The meat is pale and tender, with a faintly gamey, rich, sweet flavour, that overall is milder than other duck meat.
Most ducks have yellowish skin, but Aylesbury Ducks have white skin, sometimes pinkish.
The ducks are pure white-feathered. They are very plump and large, with a long, thin neck, a long pale pink bill, and orange legs and feet. The male’s tail is somewhat curly.
The duck stands with its body parallel to the ground.
The duck is very tame, slow moving and seldom flies. But it’s easy to know where it is, as it has a very loud quack.
The females only get broody if kept as a pair, or trio. They lay eggs from early November onwards. The eggs are large and white, but the ducks aren’t prolific layers, laying only 35 to 124 a season.
The eggs have to be incubated 28 days before hatching. The ducks moult 8 weeks after birth; about 85% of the ducklings survive to this point. At this point, many are big enough to be sent to market, as they will weigh up to 5 pounds (2.3 kg.)
At one year of age, males average 6 pounds (2.7 kg); females average 7 pounds (3.2 kg.) Males can grow up to 10 pounds (4.5 kg.)
Aylesbury Ducks were traditionally brought to market from February onwards, and sold mostly in the spring and summer.
There are very few left of the pure breed. In fact, currently (2011), there appears to be only one pure-bred flock remaining in England.
The Aylesbury Duck originated in Alyesbury, Buckinghamshire, England.
In the 1700s, people in Aylesbury had begun raising white ducks through selective breeding of mallards, in order to obtain white feathers for use in bedding. Before then, white ducks would just occur by random chance from mallards. This selective breeding led first to a breed referred to as “English White.” in the 1800s, further selective breeding of the “English White” breed occurred as duck rearing became a big industry in Aylesbury at the start of the 1800s, and over time, the Aylesbury duck emerged.
Duck rearing became an important industry in Aylesbury. Fertilized eggs were brought from farms to houses in a poorer part of Aylesbury that became known as “Duck’s End”, where people would rear them.
“The white Aylesbury duck is, and deservedly, a universal favourite. Its snowy plumage and comfortable comportment make it a credit to the poultry-yard, while its broad and deep breast, and its ample back, convey the assurance that your satisfaction will not cease at its death. In parts of Buckinghamshire, this member of the duck family is bred on an extensive scale; not on plains and commons, however, as might be naturally imagined, but in the abodes of the cottagers. Round the walls of the living-rooms, and of the bedroom even, are fixed rows of wooden boxes, lined with hay; and it is the business of the wife and children to nurse and comfort the feathered lodgers, to feed the little ducklings, and to take the old ones out for an airing. Sometimes the “stock” ducks are the cottager’s own property, but it more frequently happens that they are intrusted to his care by a wholesale breeder, who pays him so much per score for all ducklings properly raised. To be perfect, the Aylesbury duck should be plump, pure white, with yellow feet, and a flesh coloured beak.” – Isabella Beeton, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861
These people were called “duckers.” Female Aylesbury ducks were not good brooders, and wouldn’t stay on the eggs constantly for the 28 days needed, so the eggs were brought to the duckers to look after. The duckers either bought the eggs, raised the young ducks and then sold them to farmers, or, were paid to look after the eggs and young.
The duckers would place the eggs under chickens who were brooding. During the last week of incubation, warm water was sprinkled daily on the eggs helped to soften the egg shell and make hatching easier. In the first week, the ducklings were fed foods such as boiled rice, beef liver, boiled eggs and water-soaked toast, then they were weaned onto barley meal and boiled rice mixed with grease, along with cabbage, lettuce and nettles. Grit was put in the drinking water to help them digest food (some attributed the ducks’ bill colour to the type of grit the birds were given.)
By the end of the 1800s, more successful duckers moved the critters out of their houses into insulated outdoor pens and sheds. Generally the ducks were kept away from large bodies of water, though they got one good swim before being taken to market, as it help them to develop better feathers. But in general, they were kept away from dirty water, bright sunlight, and high iron content soil to help keep the feathers white for bedding use.
The ducks were slaughtered by the duckers right at home. The feathers were sold separately from the carcasses, being valued in their own right, and the carcasses sent off to market in London. [Ed: a story of them being walked to London, with tar and sawdust on their feet, appears in only one place, “The Aylesbury Duck” by Ambrose Alison, and hasn’t been found anywhere else. Most people dismiss the story as fanciful.]
By 1839, a rail line was opened to London to enable the ducks to get to market more easily and cheaply overnight, and Aylesbury’s duck industry really took off. Consumers in London liked the Aylesbury with its white skin compared to the yellow skins of other ducks in the butchers’ windows.
By the 1860s, duck rearing moved into areas surrounding Aylesbury as the town grew.
By 1873, the Pekin duck had been introduced into England. It was hardy and cheap to raise, though most agreed the meat flavour was not as good as the Aylesbury duck. At the same time, Aylesburys were becoming inbred and more prone to disease. Breeders cross-bred the two, to try to introduce the hardiness into the Aylesbury. Slowly the pure-bred Aylesbury line diminished, both because of cross-breeding, and because Pekin duck meat could be supplied to market cheaper.
The first and second world wars wiped out the small scale duck raisers, and the “duckers” disappeared.
In the 1950s, only one large pure-bred flock of the ducks remained: a single flock in Chesham owned by a Mr L. T. Waller. He traced his flock back to 1775. Currently (2010) the operation is run by his son, Richard Waller. They ducks are raised free-range, being allowed to roam in paddocks. The ducks are slaughtered just before their moult at 8 weeks, having a market weight about 8 ½ lbs (3.86 kgs) oven-ready, owing to the feed they are supplied with.
Aylesbury Ducks were introduced into America in 1840, though they never became popular there. They were exhibited in Boston, Massachusetts at the first poultry show there in 1849. There are small flocks in North America, totally about 282 breeding birds altogether (as of 2000.) In America, the eggs are reported to come out somewhat bluish-shelled.
Ambrose, Alison. The Aylesbury Duck. 1991.
Davidson, Alan and Tom Jaine. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford University Press, 2006. Page 259.
Fitzpatrick, Maria. Duck recipes: Aylesbury’s finest. London: Daily Telegraph. 16 February 2009.
Holligon, Sheila. The Ayesbury. SPPA Bulletin, 5(1): 5. 2000.
Prince, Rose. Aylesbury ducks really deliver. London: Daily Telegraph. 16 March 2010.
Waller, Richard. Aylesbury Duck Farm web site. http://aylesbury.duckfarm.co.uk/richard/waller/home Consulted February 2011.