Whenever Aylesbury is mentioned, what often first springs to mind is the famous breed of duck that originated in the town. The Aylesbury Duck is thought to have evolved during the early years of the 18th Century, the result of selective breeding of the common duck which was usually brown or grey in colour, but occasionally white. Breeders were aware that London dealers preferred white plumage, as the feathers were popular for quilt filling, and the pale pink skin of a plucked white bird was considered more attractive than the yellow skin of coloured ducks.
History of the Aylesbury Duck
Historically Aylesbury Ducks were walked from the Vale of Aylesbury to London, a distance of some 40 miles. The drovers would often stop for the night at inns along the way where the birds were kept in large enclosed yards. Each morning, they would be driven through a cold tarry solution in a shallow ditch followed by a layer of sawdust, which provided the birds with a set of crude shoes to protect their feet on the road to London.
Throughout the 19th Century the main market for duck meat was provided by the wealthy people of London, and by 1839 the ducks could be transported by rail. J K Fowler, writing in 1850, said "oftentimes in the spring, in one night, a ton weight of ducklings from six to eight weeks old are taken by rail from Aylesbury and the villages round to the metropolis." As the popularity of the famous Aylesbury Duck grew, visitors flocked from far and wide to buy the local delicacy from the town's fat stock markets.
During these years, almost everyone who lived in the 'Duck End' of Aylesbury bred the Aylesbury Duck. It became a poor, crowded part of town, with the residents living in cramped unsanitary conditions. The ducks were reared inside the already damp cottages, and the young ducklings were sometimes taken to bed to keep them warm. However, by about 1850 the number of establishments breeding the ducks began to decline. The introduction of new sanitary regulations made duck rearing in cottages difficult, and the soil quality in Aylesbury deteriorated to such an extent, following many years of duck raising that it caused an outbreak of 'Duck Fever'. In 1873 the Peking Duck was brought to Britain from China, and the Aylesbury breed was frequently crossed with it. As a result, the pure breed began to disappear and by the Second World War ducking in and around Aylesbury had almost vanished.
The Aylesbury Duck today
Recent years have seen efforts on the part of breeders to re-establish the Aylesbury Duck, and they have become popular once more as an exhibition bird. According to Lewis Wright in the 1880's, the Aylesbury Duck should be of the purest white with a bill set well up on the skull and the beak almost in a line from the top of the head to the tip, and of a delicate flesh colour. It is this distinctive pinkish white colour of the beak that is so important in establishing if the bird is a pure Aylesbury breed. Every bird needs grit to break up food and make it more digestible, and the Aylesbury duck was given a special type of grit found not far from Aylesbury. It was due to this grit that the characteristic flesh coloured bill developed.
Where to see the Aylesbury Duck
If you just want to look try the large duck pond in front of St Mary's Church in Haddenham, a large village in the southern tip of Aylesbury Vale.