The Dorking chicken, a rare and endangered breed, has some unique qualities. It is the only purely British breed, has five toes instead of four and is the only breed with red earlobes which lays a white-shelled egg.
The Dorking is a very ancient breed. It is believed to have had its origins in Italy during the Roman Empire and was taken to Britain by the Romans in about AD30. The Roman writer, Columella, writing during the reign of Julius Caesar, describes large, broad-breasted hens with small upright combs, square frames and large heads. He also mentions the five toes of the purer birds. Most of the development of the Dorking was done in England where it was prized for its table qualities.
Today the Dorking can have a rose comb or single comb. Historically rose combs were bred in the north and single combs in the south. The Dorking appeared in the first poultry show in 1845. The Light Sussex and Faverolles are two of the breeds that can boast of having Dorking blood in their ancestry.
The Dorking is a dual purpose chicken producing around 140 eggs per annum. It is a heavily fleshed bird providing quality white meat for the table. The body of the Dorking is rectangular. The legs are very short and the feet have five toes. Because the comb is relatively large, the bird needs protection in cold weather as combs can be affected by frost. Even so, birds at the Sand Hill Preservation Center in Iowa are recorded as continuing to lay and thrive at 25 below zero.
They are a very tractable breed, being friendly and easily tamed. For such a large breed they are good flyers. They may need separation from more aggressive breeds if they are not to be deprived of their fair share of feed. Unless fed well and given sufficient space, they may not reach their full potential and grow to be weedy. They may be two years old before becoming mature and live for up to seven years.
The Silver-grey is the most common variety and is a strikingly handsome bird with the cocks having pure white hackles and saddle with black underparts. The hens are slate-grey on the back, pencilled with darker markings. The hackles are silver striped with black and a salmon breast.
The skin colour is white. Silver-grey and coloured adult cocks reach 9 pounds in weight and hens 7 pounds. White Dorkings are smaller with cocks reaching 7 pounds and hens 6 pounds.
Other varieties of Dorking include red, white, cuckoo and dark. The red is very dark and the white is pure white. In the cuckoo type, each feather has fuzzy stripes of grey and dark grey across each feather. The dark is similar to the silver grey but is darker with a black crescent on the breast and back. In all varieties the eyes, wattles, earlobes and combs are red and the feet and legs white. There is also a Dorking bantam.
The breed is known for its fine quality meat. Early breeders crossed the Dorking with several other breeds producing excellent first cross meat strains. Crossing with the Cornish or Indian Game gave an early maturing table fowl. The Dorking gives a large, full flavoured carcass with a large breast. For its size it is very lightly boned. The eggs are large and white to cream in colour. The Dorking lays well for the first few years but is always inclined to go broody if given the opportunity. This breed is happiest if allowed free range. They will cover a surprising amount of ground if allowed to run free. The fifth toe can contribute to foot problems. Large, low perches will help avoid these problems.
Birds with four toes often appear among hatchlings and should be kept as breeding birds although they will still make friendly and interesting pets.
'Bumblefoot' is the common name given to a bulbous growth that occurs on the bottom of the foot. Normally there is an abrasion to the foot pad which allows infection to set in. The abrasion or injury can be very minor but the footpad becomes swollen and may be red and hot to the touch.
The Dorking is strongly inclined to become broody and make good mothers. Because of their white skin, Dorkings are less popular in the United States than in Europe.
The Rare Breeds Trust of Australia recognises the genetic value of the Dorking alongside its inherent usefulness and attractiveness. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust of Britain lists the Dorking on the 'at risk' list. It is to be hoped this very attractive bird will continue to find enthusiasts willing to continue breeding this unique chicken.