The Pekin bantam is a popular little bird with an extraordinary background. Who would have thought that drug dealing and trade wars between countries would result in the Pekin residing in UK back gardens today as one of many families’ most loved pet.

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White Pekin female. Photo: Kenneth McKie

The importation of this bantam is recorded as being down to either of two possibilities. One is that a gift of bantams known as Shanghais were sent to Queen Victoria around 1835 and these were then bred with later importations. Other documentation states that the breed was seized from China and brought back to the UK during the Opium Wars.

The Opium Wars were two 19th Century conflicts between Britain and China – and later France. China had products such as porcelain, silks and tea that the British wanted but the Chinese would only trade through payment of silver. Rather than let British reserves of silver become depleted, entrepreneurial merchants worked out a different solution. They took opium from India, which was still under British control and imported it into China. Although this was an illegal activity as China was trying to prevent the highly-addictive drug opium from getting into the country, corrupt Chinese officials took advantage of the situation and smuggled the drug in, paying with silver.

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By the 1830s millions of Chinese were hooked on the drug causing damage to the population’s health and the country’s productivity. In 1839 China decided to crack down on the drug smuggling and seized large quantities of opium from the port of Canton, where European merchants were allowed to trade.

Angry merchants asked the British Government for help and as the British had long wanted further influence in China they took the opportunity of intervening.

A British naval fleet arrived in 1840 and the Chinese were outmatched and succumbed to humiliating peace agreements, with further ports to be opened up for trading and a 99-year lease signed on the island of Hong Kong.

A second conflict took place in 1858 after Chinese officers searched a British registered ship and lowered the British flag. This led to an Anglo-French force attacking Peking in 1860. British soldiers are alleged to have looted the Emperor of China’s Summer Palace and seized items from his private collection, among which were his pet Peking bantams.

It is not known when the ‘g’ was dropped but the breed is now known as the Pekin and the city of Peking is now Beijing. The first Pekins brought to Britain were Buff with further colours being imported from China in following years. Since then Pekin breeders experimented in breeding programmes using the white Booted Bantam from which the white Pekin is believed to have been developed.

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Black Pekin male. Photo: Roger Thomas

It was originally thought that the breed was in fact a bantam Cochin, mainly because of the fluffy feathered appearance and the short feathered legs. Although the Cochin does not have a miniature equivalent, the type and conformation of the Pekin is considered different and as such a separate breed.

The Pekin is classified as a True Bantam as there is no large fowl equivalent for the breed. It has a short but broad body which is covered with abundant plumage. The short wings are tightly tucked up close to the body and the ends are hidden beneath the saddle hackle. The tail provides a significant look to the breed for although it is short the plentiful soft feathering almost hides the main tail feathers and the whole look forms one unbroken duplex curve with the back and saddle. Ideally the tail is carried higher than the bird’s head creating this recognizable ‘tilt’ that the Pekin is renowned for.

The beak is yellow but in dark colours it may be shaded with black or horn. Eyes should be red and the comb, face, wattles and ear lobes are a bright scarlet. The legs and feet are yellow but may be darker in the black Pekin so long as the shanks and feet are still yellow.

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Cuckoo male. Photo: Roger Thomas

Colours of the Pekin as accepted in the British Poultry Standards are black, blue, buff, cuckoo, mottled, barred, birchen, Columbian, lavender, partridge, silver partridge and white.

The male Pekin weighs 680g (24oz) maximum and female Pekin weighs 570g (20oz) maximum. The Pekin lays a small white but sometimes cream coloured egg. Although not prolific layers the eggs are useful in the kitchen. To breed the males and females may need some vent feathers to be trimmed to maximize fertility but the females do make good sitters and attentive mothers.

Roger Thomas, Secretary of the Pekin Club of Great Britain says: “Pekins make ideal garden pets, they are quiet, docile and easy to handle. They will even sit on your shoulder or knee and be happy to stay there.”

Kenneth McKie who is a keen Pekin breeder along with his son Olly says: “It is an ideal breed for children to look after and don’t take up too much space. Olly has great fun getting them ready for a show and it’s a lovely hobby for children.”

Pekins are ideal for a small garden and unlike some other breeds of poultry will not make too much damage to a lawn or plants. This is because they have short feathered legs and the feathered leg breeds are less likely to scratch. As Pekins are so close to the ground and have these very feathery feet and abundant plumage they are best kept housed during the late autumn to early spring. Pekins will be miserable outside in cold, wet weather and their feathering will be greatly damaged. However, in a shed with ventilation they will be quite happy and safe during the short days of winter and easier to look after.

Make sure they are inspected regularly for any parasites as mites and lice love to live on poultry that is heavily feathered.

Thanks to: Kenneth McKie Pekin Club of Great Britain, pekinclubgb.pekincorner.co.uk, 01726 70298/07766 700822.

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Janice Houghton-Wallace has written this exclusively for Smallholder magazine. For monthly articles like this subscribe here, call 01778 392011, email subscriptions@warnersgroup.co.uk or buy from a newsagent.