The Dorking, or Darking as it was originally called has a long history and although it is classified as a British breed there has continually been some debate over its actual ancestry.

There are two general characteristics of the Dorking that poultry historians over time have put forward backing the question of whether the breed was introduced into Britain or whether it is actually a native breed. These are that the breed has five toes and rather short legs. Why would these be important in defining its origins? Well there is an interesting line of thought on this.

Although some documentation says that this breed of fowl was introduced to Britain by the Romans when they invaded in 43 AD it is not actually known if they brought the birds with them or if they found five toed birds when they arrived. The Roman author Columella did write about five toed birds in Rome being amongst the best breeding stock but there is little evidence of such fowl existing after this.

Another line of possibility is that the Roman invaders collected some of the five toed Ardennes birds from Belgium en route to England and these are what formed the nucleus of the breed.

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Silver Grey Dorking cockerel. Photo: Victoria Roberts BVSc MRCVS

The characteristic short legs could also give a clue, for Phoenician traders, prior to the Romans visiting the English shore would travel from the Mediterranean with poultry onboard ship to then barter them for tin and other commodities to take home. It might have even been Phoenician traders collecting some Ardennes birds from Belgium and exchanging them. The Phoenicians and Romans also ventured to Scotland, or came to Britain through northern ports and if these five-toed birds were crossed with the Scottish ‘dumpies’, the resulting shorter legged Dorkings would certainly make sense.

It is noticeable that wherever a Roman settlement was based the five-toed Dorking breed was found and some excellent examples of the bird commented on. A writer in the Gardeners’ Chronicle in 1848 praises the Dorkings bred in Cumberland (now the amalgamation of Cumberland and Westmorland into Cumbria) known there as the ‘Jew Breed’ or ‘Silver Pheasant Breed’, which, over the Borders are known as the ‘Scotch Breed’.

Those invaders crossing the English Channel and entering southern ports would arrive in the adjacent counties of Kent, Surrey and Sussex. Many poultry keepers in the Dorking area of Surrey, with relatively easy access to the London markets saw the value of the Dorking as a table bird and its popularity grew.

With the Sussex breed also being important to the area Dorking keepers began to develop and stabilise plumage colours and patterns of their own breed. Partly it is believed to make the breed more distinguishable and recognisable. The Dorking was initially produced as a meat bird and as such is well respected. There is plenty of flesh on it which is tender and has a delicate flavour. Early breeders of the Dorking fowl so valued it that is was extremely difficult to purchase live chickens at any price. It is rumoured that at one time the town of Dorking had a law against selling any Dorking fowl alive.

The breed soon established itself as not only a table bird but a popular exhibition bird as well. The Dorking was included in the first British poultry standards - The Standard of Excellence in Exhibition Poultry edited by William Bernhardt Tegetmeier and published in 1865 by the Poultry Club of Great Britain.

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Red Dorking hen. Photo: Victoria Roberts BVSc MRCVS

Up until the First World War it could be seen at all the major poultry shows and separate Clubs were formed for the different varieties of Dorking along with a Scottish Dorking Club as well. However these folded with the outbreak of the Second World War and gradually the breed fell out of favour. Unfortunately as their show qualities improved their table qualities declined and with the development of hybrid crosses the Dorking was shelved by many and almost became extinct.

The Dorking Club was re-formed in 1970 and it still active today. The breed needs more breeders especially amongst smallholders who wish to keep the tradition of a supreme table bird going.

The Dorking has a large body that is long, deep and rectangular in shape. It is well feathered with a full sweeping tail and well curved hackles. The head is most interesting because the comb can be either single or rose. Either kind is allowed in the Dark Dorking, a single comb only in the Red and Silver Gray and a rose comb only in the Cuckoo and White. The single comb is upright, moderately large, broad at the base and evenly serrated. The rose comb is moderately broad and square fronted, narrowing behind to a distinct and slightly upturned leader, the tip covered with small coral-like points of even height. The legs are short and strong and it should have five large well formed toes.

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Cuckoo Dorking hen. Photo: Victoria Roberts BVSc MRCVS

The different colour varieties of Dorking are Cuckoo, Dark, Red, Silver Grey and White. The weights are: Mature male 4.55 – 6.35 kg (10 – 14lb) and Mature female 3.60 – 4.55kg (8-10lb). Younger birds will weigh slightly less. There is a bantam version of the Dorking but these are very rare. The bantam weights are Male 1130 – 1360g (40 – 48oz) and Female 910 – 1130g (32 – 40 oz).

The Dorking is one of the few breeds with red earlobes that produces a white-shelled egg. It is definitely a utility breed and will continue egg laying well into the winter. The hens are prone to going broody easily but also make very good mothers.

The Dorking is a relatively calm and docile breed that loves to forage. It does not tend to scratch as much as other breeds so is a little kinder to grassy areas.

A Dorking cockerel sculptured by Peter Parkinson stands on the Deepdene roundabout in Dorking as a symbol of the town’s past.

Contact: The Dorking Club: Secretary, Victoria Roberts BVSc. MRCVS Website: vicvet.com/dorkingclub

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This article was written exclusively for Smallholder magazine by Janice Houghton-Wallace. If you would like to enjoy more like it, subscribe here, call 01778 392011, email subscriptions@warnersgroup.co.uk or buy from a newsagent.