A schoolboy has hatched a duckling from a Waitrose egg using an incubator he bought on eBay. It’s enough to put anyone off their boiled egg and soldiers …
Fourteen-year-old William Atkins has put the cat among the pigeons – or perhaps the fox among the ducklings. He wanted to know if it was possible to hatch a supermarket egg, so he bought an incubator on eBay for £40 and half a dozen free-range duck eggs from Waitrose. Three days later, when he shone a torch on to one of the eggs, he was amazed to see a beating heart; three weeks later the egg started to rock; and then, 28 days on from the start of his experiment, a duckling hatched.
This is very nice news for William and Jeremy, the duckling, but a little worrying for the egg industry. “People have a dual relationship with eggs,” says Mark Diacono, the author of The Chicken & Eggs River Cottage Handbook. “They love to eat them, but don’t want to think too hard about what they actually are.” Which, he says, is part of the female reproductive cycle.
The great majority of eggs, whether from ducks or chickens, will not be fertilised. “You are not going to open a box of eggs, crack them and a chick will fall out,” says Diacono, reassuringly. Commercial egg producers kill off male chicks at birth – a subject they prefer not to talk about – to try to ensure their flocks are female-only. The odd rogue male may, however, get through, which is what appears to have happened in this case. Clarence Court, the company that produced William’s duck eggs, is unsure how it happened, suggesting that either a male was accidentally allowed to enter the flock by their sexing experts or a wild drake managed to sneak in.
Producers of hens’ eggs are, for obvious reasons, desperate to quash the suggestion that your boiled egg is a potential chick. “In commercial egg production, males and females are separated at around a day old and are kept separately,” says Lucy Egerton, a British Egg Industry Council spokeswoman. “We believe in commercial egg production the sexing process is accurate. We don’t think this could happen in a commercial laying flock, though it could happen in a backyard flock.”
Margaret Manchester, the managing director of Durham Hens, which supplies hens to the hobbyist market, points out that even a fertilised egg is not a living creature. “There is no embryo until heat is applied either through the hen sitting on the egg or by putting it in an incubator.” She says a fertilised egg doesn’t taste any different and won’t harm you. Indeed, in the days when most eggs came from farms that kept cockerels, almost all eggs would have been fertilised. She says you can spot a fertilised egg by looking at the yolk: in place of a usual small white spot, you will see a ring. But it is a myth that the presence of blood spots is a sign that the egg is fertilised. “Blood spots are just something that can happen in the egg-laying process,” she says.
While “all this is about potential rather than reality”, as Diacono says, it does remind us that eggs have the capacity for life. That doesn’t mean we should all become vegans, he says, but it does encourage us to reassess our relationship with food. “Everyone has to draw the line on what they will and won’t eat,” says Diacono.