Dorking Chickens: Heritage Poultry Breeds

Dorking chickens may grow a little slower than other modern breeds, but this heritage poultry breed produces a highly marketable, gourmet meat. The Dorking is an ancient breed reputedly brought to Britain by the Romans, although Julius Caesar noted that Britons already kept and enjoyed chickens before the Romans’ arrival. Britain was brought into the Roman Empire in A.D. 43, and at the same time the Roman agricultural writer Columella described a type of chicken very much like the traditional Red Dorking. This single red-combed bird was square and broad breasted, with short legs and five toes. Columella declared that the best chickens have five toes. The Roman scholar Pliny also wrote during this time about a chicken with an odd number of toes. The Romans could indeed have introduced the five-toed Dorking into Britain. It was not until the seventeenth century that chickens were again written about seriously, and at that time the chickens with five toes were still being raised in Italy. Writers also mentioned an old chicken breed known as the Dorking, colored white with a rose comb.

The five-toed Dorking was certainly present in Britain for a very long time. For several centuries the village of Dorking in Surrey and the greater surrounding area, including Sussex to the south, were known as prime poultry breeding areas for the meat markets. Five-toed chickens were also found in Cumberland and Scotland. The Dorking acquired a reputation for an especially tender meatiness, so that consumers requested them by name. Dorkings also had abundant white breast meat and white skin, both of which were also desirable. Dorking cocks were used to cross on Indian Game chickens to produce table birds. Dorkings were also used to create such new breeds as the Speckled Sussex and Buff Orpington.

The original Red Dorking was bred in large numbers through the nineteenth century but has become the rarest of the varieties, which include pure White, Dark, Silver Grey, and Cuckoo. The number of Red Dorkings became so low in the 1950s that crossings with a Dutch breed, the Welsummers, was attempted. The pure Red Dorking is now one of the rarest of the traditional native chickens in Britain. The Silver Grey is generally believed to be a very old native variety, perhaps as old as the Red, but is felt by some to be a more recent creation.

The Dorking was imported to North America, where it kept its reputation as a special table bird. Settlers had little time to pamper their birds or worry about breeding, unless they were breeding fighting cocks. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, customers at the butcher shops were asking for breeds like the Dorking or Houdan, believing them to be sweeter, more delicious, and meatier than other varieties. The Dorking was not believed to be a good all-around farm bird because it was not an exceptional egg-layer and it fared poorly in wet, cold conditions. Over time, Dorkings and other dark-feathered chickens lost popularity to white chickens, and in America yellow skin became more desirable than white skin. The only Dorking to survive in the United States is the Silver Grey, which is kept only in small numbers by fanciers mainly for exhibition.

Although Columella described the Roman five-toed bird as having white earlobes, all Dorkings have red earlobes, which is unusual in layers of white eggs. Some strains do produce lightly tinted eggs. The Dorking should be a reasonable layer of good-sized eggs but is more seasonal than year-round in production. Poor laying ability has sometimes troubled the small conservation population. The Dorking hen will strongly brood her eggs, and the breed forages actively yet is docile in nature.

The Dorking has a stout, rectangular, broad breasted body with short, sturdy legs. Breeders need to seek to maintain the good heavy size. The traditional Dorking weighs 8 to 14 pounds. The shanks and toes are white. The unusual fifth toe of the Dorking is found on the back of the foot between the rear toe and the shank, inclining slightly upward. It usually does not rest on the ground. Worldwide, only four other poultry breeds have this trait. The large single comb of the Dorking is prone to frostbite injury, and some raisers in colder areas still dub or dock it. The White Dorking still sports the rose comb of old.

The Dorking is a tight-feathered bird with abundant hackle, or neck plumage. The Red Dorking has a rich mahogany-colored hackle and back feathers, and its tail and underparts are colored black. The Red hen has black tips on her feathers and a gold-and-black-striped hackle. The Silver Grey Dorking is an especially striking bird. The black underparts and tail have a lovely blue-green sheen, while the hackle and saddle (the rear part of the fowl’s back extending to the tail) are silvery white. The Silver Grey hen is colored ashy to dark slate gray with penciled markings, a silver black-striped hackle, and a salmon-red breast.

The Dorking is criticized today as a slow grower, but in the nineteenth century, it was considered a fast grower with good conformation. Of course, modern expectations of growth are now skewed toward the broiler production specialists. The Dorking still possesses a good meat conformation and is well suited to range conditions where the ground is usually dry and soft. The Dorking would fit the bill for a gourmet meat bird marketed directly to customers.

The attractive Dorking remains a good general purpose bird, especially for meat. It is also one of the oldest of British breeds, bred by admirers who wish to maintain its history and nobility. The Dorking is included in the RBST Poultry Conservation Programme.

Our thanks to Yale University Press for their kind permission to post this profile from The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds (Copyright 2001 by Yale University), by Janet Vorwald Dohner. This 500-page book is a definitive reference about heritage livestock, describing the history and characteristics of almost 200 breeds of poultry, cattle, pigs, goats, sheep and horses. TheEncyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breedsis available from Amazon.

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