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Aylesbury’s famous marching ducks

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ducks (Callie Jones)Following the Thames riverside from Waterloo to the Royal Pharmaceutical Society recently, I noticed a white-plumaged duck among some mallard on the river and heard a passer-by refer to it as an Aylesbury duck. Not so. The true Aylesbury is a rare breed that is unlikely to be met in the wild (if the Thames in central London can be so described).

White domestic ducks these days are descended mainly from the Pekin duck, a white-plumaged mallard with a yellow or orange bill, which was introduced from China in 1873. A true Aylesbury has a pale flesh-coloured bill, contrasting with bright orange legs and feet.

The Aylesbury duck has an intriguing history. Domestic ducks in Britain were originally similar to wild mallard, but in the early years of the 18th century duck farmers in the Vale of Aylesbury developed a white variety by selective breeding from albino birds. They preserved the ducks’ whiteness by protecting them from strong sunlight, dirty water and iron-rich foods. Why? Because London dealers would pay more for these birds. One reason was that the white feathers could be sold on as fillings for quilts. Another was that the ducks’ pinkish skin, derived from their albino heritage, proved more attractive to consumers than the yellowish skin of wild duck.

A problem for Aylesbury’s farmers was transporting the birds the 40-plus miles into the capital. Surprising as it may now seem, the ducks made their way on foot. Drovers walked them into London, stopping overnight at inns where the birds could be corralled. To give some protection to the birds’ feet on their long march, each morning they were driven through a tarry solution and then through sawdust.

The opening of a railway link in 1839 made transport easier, but soon afterwards duck breeding in Aylesbury began a decline, later accelerated by an outbreak of “duck fever” and by the arrival of the aforementioned Pekin duck. By the 1940s the rearing of pure-bred Aylesbury ducks had almost been abandoned but thankfully one or two local enthusiasts managed to keep it alive. The breed is now recovering slightly, thanks to its promotion by some of London’s gourmet restaurants.

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