Since the launch of the Watercress Lane Duck Egg label, Paul Leveridge and Melandy Daniels have seen sales of duck eggs increase 45% in the past year.
They diversified into producing and selling duck eggs, seeing it as a natural addition to the family business supplying day-old ducklings to independent duck egg and meat producers.
Burwell Hatchery started life back in 1982 when Paul’s mother, Eileen, bought the former Bernard Matthews turkey breeding farm. The family then went about converting it into an independent duck hatchery.
At its peak, the site was hatching 20,000 ducklings weekly, initially for the Shingfield meat business. But over the years, demand fell away as several customers went under.
Focus then shifted to hatching ducks for the egg-laying side after securing an agreement with Noble Foods to manage its breeding stock and supply birds to its Church and Manor duck egg producers.
And Burwell has now seen numbers climb again to about 4000-4500 day-olds a week, reflecting an increase in consumer demand for duck eggs and meat.
“Many producers out there are struggling to source day-old ducklings. Currently we are selling to customers across the UK, including some in Northern Ireland, and having just received acceptance into the Poultry Health Scheme we will be able to satisfy enquiries from the Republic.”
This increasing consumer interest in duck prompted Mr Leveridge and Mrs Daniels to launch their own retail duck egg business in January 2008 under the Watercress Lane Duck Egg brand.
Currently they have 8000 birds producing eggs and they can’t keep up with demand. Now they are looking to expand through establishing franchises in other parts of the UK. The week of Poultry World’s visit saw the company sell 274 cases (65,760 eggs).
As well as selling wholesale, they also sell eggs in their own prepacks carrying the Watercress Lane logo. Eggs are currently stocked in several local farm shops, two local Budgens stores, three stalls at Smithfield Market and a butchers shop in Mayfair.
Eggs are sold as “natural” having undergone minimal washing, leaving the natural wax layer intact. “Over washing can reduce their shelf life,” says Mr Leveridge.
While there is no legal requirement, they label packs giving consumers full traceability, including the date laid, which flock and a best before date.
A key difference with chicken eggs is the higher price, although Mr Leveridge believes consumers are still getting much more for their money.
“They will always be much more expensive than chicken eggs as it is much more labour intensive. There are no automatic egg belts or conveyors like that seen with chicken eggs.
“As ducks tend to try and hide eggs, it takes about 20-30 minutes to collect eggs by hand from each pen of 300 birds,” he says.
A key ingredient in growing sales is Mrs Daniel’s hands-on approach to marketing. She has directly approached shops and even produced a DVD, giving potential retailers and consumers an insight into how their ducks are farmed to high welfare standards.
“When Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall raised the profile of poultry welfare in their TV programmes, consumers were concerned how animals were housed. We use the DVD to show them that ducks are not crammed into sheds.
“It has proved particularly valuable at farmers markets,” she says.
Recipe cards have also proved useful, since many new consumers are unsure how to cook duck eggs.
“They can be used in the usual recipes, but remember that an average hen’s egg weighs 50g while duck eggs are about 85g. Some adjustment maybe necessary where accurate proportions of ingredients are important, such as baking,” she says.
Her determination has even led to new unexpected markets. On her trip to Chinatown in London, she discovered the Chinese love of salted duck eggs. They are now supplying eggs into this market where eggs are placed in brine for 30-40 days before being cooked and consumed.
Mr Leveridge believes one key selling point for Watercress Lane Duck Eggs is that it is unique in managing the whole chain with control over its own breeding stock, layers, grading and packing right through to delivery.
Burwell hatchery runs about 20,000 birds in total, with 4600 breeders housed on the hatchery site in Mattishall, near Norwich.
Paul Leveridge and Melandy Daniels typically sell about 500 day-olds a week for laying and 4000 for meat, and they are looking to increase this.
Birds are housed in part open straw-bedded barns, providing natural light and airy conditions. They will lay for about 12-14 months before egg shell quality drops to a level causing loss of hatchability.
“However, if demand drops like in the summer months, you can get layers to lay for eight months and then go off lay and then you can bring them back for another eight months,” he says.
Birds lay in next boxes with open fronts. “We used to have enclosed boxes, but we found that birds can smother in summer. It takes a while to train birds to use the boxes.”
At the heart of the high welfare standards is giving birds constant access to open water troughs. Troughs are on raised concrete ramps to keep water off bedding.
“Ramps are crucial for keeping hatching eggs clean as this can affect hatchability. Birds are bedded down three times a week with fresh barley straw while troughs are emptied every morning to ensure they remain clean.
“We found that barley was best for keeping eggs cleaner,” he adds.
Birds come in to lay at 20-22 weeks of age and are managed in flocks of about 2000-3000 birds, and housed in pens of 300. “There are five females to each male and you would expect to get 300 eggs/bird in a year.
Meat birds are larger at about 3.2kg body weight at point of lay compared with 2.2kg for egg birds. Meat breeders typically produce 220 eggs a year.
All birds, including meat birds are vaccinated against salmonella giving consumers reassurance over food safety. “On top of this, flocks are routinely monitored and tested for salmonella, including boot swabs, to ensure we have healthy, happy flocks,” he says.
Burwell Hatchery facts
Established in 1982
Employs 27 staff, including part time
Manage breeders for Noble Foods
Housed in barns
Selling 4000 day-olds a week
Supplying independent producers
French hybrid Pekin breeds
Day-olds for egg and meat flocks
Sell into wholesale and retail
Training is a key part of staff management at Burwell hatchery, including duck specific courses delivered by Poultec Training.
“It has resulted in staff being more confident in what they are doing in duck husbandry,” says Paul Leveridge. “It gives you flexibility having all staff trained, as they have the skills to stand in when someone is off sick.”
He also believes it send out the right positive message to staff as they feel involved. “You get more out of them as if shows that you are confident in them and are willing to invest in them.”