Duck feeding: Irish firm puts dispensers in parks across Ireland, UK and Netherlands

Matthew Knight’s The Feed Ducks Initiative is now operating feeding stations in public parks in Ireland, the UK and Netherlands

Matthew Knight, founder of The Feed Ducks Initiative: 'The aim of The Feed Ducks Initiative is to make feeding more sustainable.' Photograph: Martina Regan

During the Covid lockdowns Matthew Knight started bringing his little boy to feed the ducks at his local park in Carrigaline on the outskirts of Cork city. Two and a half years on and what started as a fun thing to do with young Oscar has become a business. Knight’s The Feed Ducks Initiative is now operating more than 50 feeding stations in public parks in Ireland, the UK and most recently the Netherlands.

“The aim of The Feed Ducks Initiative is to make feeding more sustainable by reducing the amount of bread being used and correcting overfeeding,” says Knight who first noticed the problem when he saw families feeding large amounts of bread to the ducks and also throwing it into the lake.

“I knew that feeding bread was not good for wildlife,” he adds. “It had consequences for their habitats and also encourages the spread of disease. I thought there had to be a better way and the light-bulb moment came when I asked myself a simple question: if we put a dispenser in our local park with the right feed, would families stop bringing bread and use the dispenser instead?

“After mulling over it for a couple of days, I approached Cork County Council and they were very keen on the idea. So, I enlisted the help of my 80-year-old father-in-law, Liam Manley, who has a crafty eye for carpentry, and we built the first prototype dispenser in the back garden.

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“The response in Carrigaline park was overwhelmingly positive and the council gave us permission to put a dispenser at the lough, another popular duck feeding spot. Outbreaks of botulism had been a problem there in the past and had devastated the wildlife. It was at this point that I realised we could solve a bigger problem not just one in one community.”

Knight knew the idea had legs when within a few months of installing the Cork units he was contacted by UK councils interested in feeders for their areas. “It was back to the drawing board as I knew that extending the initiative meant our dispensers would have to be of a certain size and to work in certain way to successfully scale the initiative,” Knight says. “What we subsequently designed was the world’s first solar-powered duck food dispenser.”

The company now has partnerships with more than 40 local government authorities in Ireland and the UK with plans to bring the initiative to the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The company is ahead of its projected targets and on course to have 80 units operating by the end of 2024 and 250 within three years.

The dispensers are made in Cork and a portion of seed costs €1 via contactless payment. The seed is scooped directly from the chute (to avoid packaging litter) and families are encouraged to bring their own containers to share it out between siblings.

The company bears the capital cost of the units and has a team of 16 contractors who install and maintain them. Ten per cent of the proceeds are donated back to the hosting park to use for other community projects. The remainder (which is essentially the difference between what the seed is bought and sold for) is revenue. Experience to date suggests that the average number of users per unit annually is about 8,000.

Knight, whose background is in finance, was based in London before love lured him to Cork. He initially funded the start-up himself before tapping into funds of €350,000 from the South Cork LEO (local enterprise office) and the AIB sustainability fund. Expansion is going to require more cash but, perhaps because of his background, Knight is not keen on outside investment.

“Once you start to give away ownership it muddies the waters and makes it difficult to maintain the original vision,” he says.