Breed Profile: Dorking Chicken
A Gem Among Ultra-Rare Chicken Breeds with Ancient Lineage
Reading Time: 6 minutes
BREED: The Dorking chicken is named for the market town of Dorking, in Surrey, England.
ORIGIN: Birds of this kind have been resident in southeast England for centuries, and have been occasionally documented, for example at Dorking market in 1683 and 1824. It is unknown whether they arrived with the Romans or earlier with Phoenicians or Celts. When visiting southeast England in 54 BCE, Caesar noted that chickens were kept, but not eaten.
In any case, Dorking-like chickens likely arrived from mainland Europe sometime during the first millennium BCE and first century CE. Agricultural writers in Rome (Varro, 37 BCE and Columella, first century CE) advised selecting birds with features strongly exemplified by the Dorking chicken: red or dark plumage with black tails and wings, large muscular breasts, strong square bodies, large heads, straight red crests, “robust legs, but not long”, yellow-red eyes, and five toes. White earlobes were also recommended, and some accounts report that Dorkings’ earlobes were mainly white in earlier days. The similarities suggest that the Dorking chicken may have ancestral links with these early Mediterranean birds.
From Ancient Roots, the Dorking Chicken Developed
HISTORY: Many colors of local Dorking chickens flourished prior to standardization starting in 1845. The old local breed was generally identified by its extra toe and white legs. Red and tawny birds were most common and, although highly variable in color, most typified the original body form. These were later standardized as the Red, which remains perhaps closest to the ancient type, together with Whites, which were documented as purebred in 1815. However, Reds proved harder to bring to a standard, seeing that older Reds were apt to produce white feathers.
Meanwhile, four-toed large gray fowl were common in Surrey and neighboring Sussex. Various shades of colored Dorkings arose in the early nineteenth century through selecting crosses of the two local landraces. However, offspring colors were highly variable; males often had speckled breasts and white tail feathers. With the birth of poultry shows, from 1845, breeders started to select for standard plumage. In 1854, black breasts and large combs were achieved from crossing in the Spanish breed. In 1857, prominent breeder John Douglas imported a 13 lb. (5.9 kg) gray rooster from India. This bird of unknown breed was a model Dorking type, except that he had four toes. This sire helped to standardized the Colored variety (then called “Dark Grey”, and later “Dark”), also conferring a greater size. Further development resulted in longer bodies, larger breasts, and stronger constitution.
The Silver Gray emerged from crossing a paler Colored Dorking with a Silver Duckwing Game bird and then selecting for color and size. This variety has become the most popular.
The Rise and Fall of One of our Ultra-Rare Chicken Breeds
Dorking chickens were already widespread in America before 1840 and were present at the first poultry show in 1849. White, Silver Gray, and Colored were accepted by the APA in 1874. They remained a popular utility fowl up to the early twentieth century. Later, the APA recognized Red and Cuckoo (in 1995 and 1998 respectively).
Meanwhile in England, Dorkings became a prized commercial table bird until 1914. As they became more uniform for show purposes, their utility strengths declined. The rise in popularity of commercial hybrids reduced their popularity on both continents and populations dwindled to near extinction. This resulted in inbreeding depression and diminishing size.
CONSERVATION STATUS: “Watch” on The Livestock Conservancy’s Priority List. The FAO classifies them “At Risk”, with 1425 registered birds in 2015 in the U.S., 198 in Germany in 2019, and the Dorking Club listed 841 birds in the UK in 2002. Populations also exist in Australia and New Zealand.
BIODIVERSITY: Five-toe mutations have occurred at least twice in Asia and Europe, and from there spread to different breeds around the world. One such set of genes is present in Dorkings and passed to more recent European classic breeds, such as Houdan and Faverolles chickens. Dorkings display a combination of classic traits and a long history that suggest a stable landrace foundation in Britain and Europe. As one of the ultra-rare chicken breeds, they risk a bottleneck to that gene pool, leading to inbreeding and a risk of extinction.
DESCRIPTION: Dorkings carry their long back and ample breast in a low, horizontal stance over short, strong shanks, giving a distinctive square body shape, with a long tail held diagonally. Apart from the Red, they have loose plumage. They have a stout pale beak, pale red eyes, and famously five toes on each foot. An extra hind toe points backwards and upwards.
Dorking Chicken Colors and Characteristics
VARIETIES: The oldest variety, Red, is smaller in body size and crest, and has tighter feathering. The standard male coloring is black breast, wings, and tail, with rich red hackles and saddle, and dark red back and wing bow. Hens’ feathers are rich brown-red with gold and black hackles. The other ancient line, White, is also smaller in body size.
Original standards from paintings by J. W. Ludlow (c. 1872) and H. Weir (1902). Above left: Red; middle: White; right: Dark (Colored); below: Silver Gray.
The Colored (called Dark in Britain) male has a black breast and tail, with white or yellow hackles and saddle striped with black, over a complex blend of dark browns and grays. Hens have gray, brown, and black patterning.
Silver Gray roosters have silver-white hackles, back, saddle, and wing bow over black plumage, while hens have silver and black hackles over a pale tawny breast and brown/gray body.
The Cuckoo has barred feathers and arose from early crosses.
SKIN COLOR: White, with red face and ear lobes. White shanks and feet.
COMB: The Red, Colored, and Silver Gray (and Cuckoo in America) have a single comb: on roosters large and upright; on hens partially falling to one side. The White and Cuckoo (and some Darks in Britain) bear a rose comb which is quite large and can be unconventional shapes.
POPULAR USE: Formerly a popular table bird for its tender, delicate, and flavorsome meat. London was the prime marketplace for the meat of the Dorking chicken.
EGG COLOR: White or tinted.
EGG SIZE: Medium.
PRODUCTIVITY: 150 eggs per year, laying well during winter. Slow maturing and regular sitters.
WEIGHT: Roosters 9 lb. (4.1 kg), hens 7 lb. (3.2 kg), pullets 6–8 lb. (2.7–3.6 kg).
Gentle but Well Adapted to Natural Living
TEMPERAMENT: Friendly, calm, active, needing space.
ADAPTABILITY: Dorkings prefer ranging widely and are good foragers. They cope well with cold, damp climates and lay throughout the winter. Hens brood readily and make successful, devoted mothers, while roosters are attentive and protective.
QUOTE: “I have to say that the roosters are very kind and loving to the hens, and they keep them very safe … They are curious; love to follow me in the garden to scratch up any good bugs I may have uncovered. Each of them has a personality that is just wonderful. They take turns sitting on the eggs, giving each other breaks to go eat or get water … My children absolutely love them because they are so sweet and funny.” The Brown family from Dodge, Oregon.
- Scrivener, D. 2009. Popular Poultry Breeds. Crowood.
- The Livestock Conservancy
- Lewer S. H. 1912. Wright’s Book of Poultry.
- Columella, L. J. M., De re rustica 8(2). 1745 translation.
- Corti, E., Moiseyeva, I.G. and Romanov, M.N., 2010. Five-toed chickens: Their origin, genetics, geographical spreading and history. Izvestiya of Timiryazev Agricultural Academy, 7, 156–170.
Lead photo: Silver Gray rooster, courtesy of the Brown family, OR.
Originally published in the August/September 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.