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Dottie the hen fosters 8 ducklings on boat on Kennet & Avon Canal, Newbury

A broody chicken has been the perfect foster mum to a clutch of ducklings this summer when their nest was abandoned on a boat on the Kennet and Avon Canal.

Dottie, a year-and-a-half-old Speckled Sussex, is one of nine collectively owned chickens who free range beside the canal at The Boat House, Newbury.

Doting Dottie brooded the 10 eggs and raised the surviving eight ducklings until they were old enough to be released into the wild.

Canal boat liveaboard Emma Bateman, 47, said: "We were surprised when a female mallard laid a clutch of eggs in a red bucket on our stern deck.

"She was doing really well but the males are very aggressive at this time of year and she was hounded off the nest with only a week or two to go before hatching.

"It so happened that Dottie the chicken was going through a broody phase at the time so we thought: 'Well, why not give it a go?'."

Dottie was set up in a brooding hutch of her own with the eggs. "She brooded them perfectly right from the start," said Emma. "We wrote numbers on them and we noticed she was turning them to keep them at an even temperature."

In little over a week the eggs started hatching.

Owner of The Boat House Helena Beard said: "We knew that it was perfectly possible for chickens to raise ducklings, but we kept a close eye on what was going on and didn’t take anything for granted.

"We had a rescue centre standing by to take the ducklings, or ‘chucklings’ as we call them, if things didn’t work out."

But the boaters needn’t have worried because Dottie proved to be the perfect duck mum.

"Dottie was the loveliest mother any duckling could hope for," said Emma. "She tucked them all in under her at night and in bad weather, she taught them how to forage and she chased off anything she considered a threat."

The chucklings were given an enclosure with a paddling pool and weed was brought from the nearby river for them to forage in.

"We could really see where the phrase 'a duck to water' comes from," said Helena. "They just wanted to be in it all day long, but we had to limit their swimming time because wild ducklings get oils from their mother duck and our chucklings weren’t quite so waterproof."

Before long a larger pool had to be brought in to accommodate the growing brood.

"We filled the pool with natural things like silt from the river which is full of little shrimps," explained Emma. "We wanted to encourage as much natural duck behaviour as possible and we certainly never handled them.

"It was lovely just to watch them and we spent hours sitting beside the pen as they played in the water."

Within a few short weeks the chucklings had outgrown their home. “"They weren’t really ready to go at that stage," said Helena. "But they needed a bigger enclosure so we set up a second larger one which actually went into the canal a little way.

"This way they could learn about their future home and have a few encounters with the other ducks in safety.

"Dottie took it all in her stride. She could forage on the bank whilst the chucklings played in the canal."

The boaters planned to keep the chucklings in this enclosure until they had grown out of their downy duckling coats.

"We’d been advised to keep them for bit," explained Emma. "Until all their adult feathers had come through because until then they struggle to maintain an even body temperature and are vulnerable at night."

However, the chucklings had other ideas and escaped their enclosure into the canal ahead of schedule.

"We don't really know how they managed it," said Emma. "It must have taken quite a concerted effort as a brick had been moved! They obviously just decided it was time to go."

The boaters watched with baited breath as the chucklings swam up and down, getting used to their new environment.

"We were so proud of how quickly they adapted," said Emma. "They really held their own with the other ducks. There was a lump in all our throats.

"That night the chucklings didn’t return to the hutch and we were all a bit worried so it was wonderful to see them in the morning. Now they’re coming and going throughout the day and seem to be doing really well. Dottie seems happy to go back to being a normal chicken."

Of the 10 eggs that were laid, eight ducklings were successfully released into the canal.

"One egg didn’t hatch," said Emma. "But then a friend brought us a single orphaned duckling which had got stuck in a crayfish net so the group became 10 again. Then, sadly, we had a couple of fatalities, but overall it’s not a bad outcome."

The biological mother duck went on to have a second brood. In the same red bucket.

"All three hatched last week," said Emma. "Needless to say, there is a strong family resemblance."

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