In just over four years and on only 10 acres, Abi and Josh Heyneke have succeeded in setting up a commercial farming operation from
scratch and, at the same time, are contributing to the ongoing survival of the Welsh Harlequin, one of our rarest breeds of duck.

I n a relatively small period of time, Abi and Josh Heyneke have made the transition from city life to a successful self-supporting rural business. Amongst the income streams on their Welsh Farm, Parc Carreg, is the sale of duck eggs, which they have established on a commercial footing, supplying to two local organic wholesalers, retailers and to Cae Tan on the Gower Peninsula, a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) membership scheme supplying boxed fresh produce from local farms. This year, for the first time, Parc Carreg will also be supplying leading organic veg box supplier, Abel & Cole.

Neither Abi nor Josh had any previous farming experience, as Abi explains: “We were both suburban kids and spent our working lives looking at computer screens in London but it was our ambition to make our living off the land. About four or five years ago we decided to make the leap and acquired Parc Carreg which is 10 acres of organically certified land in South Wales. We did ask ourselves the question ‘what if we are totally wrong?’ and nearly everyone told us it wouldn’t work and asked if we had any other skills we could make a living from – but it seems to be working and we are super happy.”

Working on their own terms Becoming smallholders with other income streams wasn’t on the agenda for the Heynekes and they were determined to make things work on their own terms. Abi says: “Before we made the move we did a permaculture design course, which isn’t a conventional entry route into farming, but our goals are quite different. Our main priority is to make a living off our land based on a specific set of criteria with us both farming full time.”

On their journey into farming, Abi and Josh became interested in permaculture and regenerative agriculture – producing food in a way that is environmentally and ecologically regenerative – which is the guiding principle of Parc Carreg. Before they started, Parc Carreg was 10 acres of grassland. They have since planted thousands of trees, hundreds of blueberries and flowers and around their land they rotate a flock of breeding ewes and just under 400 ducks. With blueberries being a long-term investment, income is currently generated by grass-fed meat boxes, ‘letterbox’ flowers which can be ordered for delivery anywhere in the UK, and the sale of their organic duck eggs.

Why egg production?

Abi explains why they embarked on egg production: “We had planted blueberries, but this is expensive upfront and takes a while to build turnover, whereas animal produce can generate a faster turnover. We both like eggs and having never owned chickens, we went straight for ducks, basing our decision on the fact that in Wales it rains a lot and chickens really don’t like rain – we’d seen friends’ chickens running for cover every time it rained, whereas ducks aren’t bothered.”

To begin with, Abi and Josh took on seven ducks. Abi says: “It was a pot luck of ducklings and by total fluke, four of them were Welsh Harlequins. They were very striking with lovely characters and when I researched them, I found that they were good layers which is what we were looking for. However, I also discovered that they are a rare breed and when we tried to buy at scale, there just weren’t enough available and what there were, were expensive.”

As an alternative, they chose Khaki Campbells – the breed from which the Welsh Harlequin originated - which Abi describes as “the quintessential brown duck”. She adds: “I was surprised to see that the Khaki Campbell is also on the Watchlist.”

So far, the average annual lay for the Parc Carreg flock is around 263 eggs per bird, based on 100 Khaki Campbells from August 2018 rising to 170 birds in July 2019, with last year’s rate a little lower due to an issue with spontaneous moulting.

First year of breeding

Until this year, the Heynekes have bought in their birds from a prominent breeder of working Khaki Campbells who has now retired. Consequently, this has been the first year of breeding their own ducks, choosing their breeding stock on the basis of health of the birds and productivity. Before choosing a duck for breeding, Abi checks that it is laying well by carrying out spot checks – separating individual birds and putting them in cages overnight to see if they are laying, a process that is repeated two or three times to check for consistency.

Abi says: “Unfortunately, not all of our Welsh Harlequins were up to muster and only one, Minnie, passed with flying colours. She is smaller and lighter than the others, although from the same bloodline.”

For this year’s breeding, the couple selected Khaki Campbells, Dark Campbells, Welsh Harlequins and Khaki/Welsh hybrids, working to increase their laying flock to over 350. With hatching complete, they achieved over 200 females and have retained 20 males for future breeding. Abi says: “Obviously, our primary goal is to produce good laying birds for our own enterprise, but I am passionate about ducks and would really like to contribute to the preservation of rare breeds.

“We have worked hard to find Welsh Harlequins that are both good examples of the breed and also fit for our purposes. Minnie is a good example, a wonderful layer and a great forager – always off on a mission. She is also docile and easy to catch when necessary, so she is our chosen duck for breeding Welsh Harlequins. We now have at least 26, that are her offspring. Building our own stock will take some time, but I would like to work towards the flock being all Welsh Harlequins, with our current Khaki Campbells forming part of the baseline genetics. I have looked into the genetics in great depth and, as they are closely related, I believe it should be possible. I would absolutely love a big flock of Welsh Harlequins – that is the dream.”