Conservation, Utility and the Future
Conservation and the Dorking
All varieties of Dorking might be described as rare, a word that has become so widely used in connection with livestock that we often accept that a breed is rare without fully understanding what being rare means. In simple terms it refers to a breed with a numerically small population whether this be so internationally or nationally. When one considers a rare species, such as the Giant Panda or Mauritian Kestrel, then the number of individuals in the population is the indicator of how well the species is fairing. In contrast a domestic breed differs in that not every individual is necessarily a worthy example of its breed and capable of reproducing quality offspring. Consequently, population size alone is not necessarily a good indication of how well a breed is fairing. I will suggest an alternative method of determining how endangered a breed may be in a moment, but for clarity we need to determine why certain breeds are more popular and appear to be doing well.
As in all things, fashion can make a particular breed popular for a time. Such breeds become a must for poultry collections and amateur breeders who hatch to supply the high demand for these desirable birds. Large numbers are distributed to garden flocks and others keen to breed to sell. The ability to sell these popular breeds allows amateurs to enjoy hatching and rearing chickens safe in the knowledge that they can easily sell their surplus stock. This is an increasingly popular section of the poultry fancy and allows novice enthusiasts to find and keep many different breeds until perhaps they discover a favourite that inspires them to become a dedicated breeder. Many serious breeders disapprove of this new 'craze' for breeding to supply hatching eggs, but I believe that if it leads to the cultivation of a lifelong passion for poultry breeding in a few people, then it must be a good thing.
This type of breeding brings great enjoyment to many people and can give the impression that a particular breed is thriving, however if very few dedicated breeders are working on their continued improvement by careful selection, then this popularity can be relatively short-lived as the breed eventually deteriorates in quality loosing those features that made them so appealing in the first. This may seem a strange statement, after all if these popular birds are being kept, bred from and distributed by so many people, how can they deteriorate? The fact is that only the dedicated breeder can truly maintain the good qualities of a breed by hatching in sufficiently large numbers and selecting only the very best to breed from or to sell on. Such breeders would rarely sell poor quality birds unless they could be certain that the new owner will not use them for breeding.
Therefore it would be fair to say that a breed that attracts a good number of dedicated breeders is in a far better state of preservation than one that is numerically strong but deficient in devotees selecting for quality. The term 'rare breed' is to a certain extent ambiguous, a breed's status should be assessed, not only by its population size, but also by how many people are carefully selecting for birds of exceptional quality. Counting the number of dedicated people specialising in a particular breed and variety is perhaps a better method of determining how 'rare' that particular breed is.
The Dorking fowl has survived for so long, not because they have always been found in great flocks and numerous collections, but because they attract a dedicated group of breeders who work hard to maintain the quality of their birds. The ability these birds have to enchant and fascinate will hopefully always attract new breeders, however we should not become complacent; there is always a need to attract more of the 'right kind' of breeder.
The conservation of rare breeds of poultry began in 1969 with the creation of the Rare Breeds Society by Andrew Sheppy, which held its first club show in 1970 at Canning Town Hall. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust was not to arrive on the scene for another two years, and therefore it was poultry enthusiasts that first created the idea of rare breed conservation. The Rare Breeds Society was set up to protect those breeds of fowl that did not have an operative breed club, and the Dorking was included in the original list of breeds that fell under the protection of the society. Interestingly it was the first breed to leave the society, following the reformation of the Dorking Breed Club in 1970 (Hon. Sec. - Mrs Belyavin).
Today the same club is still looking after the Dorking breed, which has also been included in the Rare Breeds Survival Trust's 'Watchlist', following the organisation's renewed interest in those poultry breeds that have strong historical ties with Britain. This support from the RBST can only benefit the Dorking breed, however it is still essentially The Dorking Breed Club that acts as custodian to all of the standardised varieties of Dorking fowl by monitoring the population of each variety, as well as bringing together the breeders at the National Poultry Show to compete for rosettes and trophies; recognition of their hard work and dedication to their chosen breed.
Dorkings as Utility Fowl
I believe that many of our poultry breeds, including the Dorking, can be and indeed should be, both aesthetically pleasing and economically viable (at a domestic level) if they are to appeal to the greatest number of potential breeders in the future. The costs involve with rare breed husbandry are growing and in the future, they are likely to be a deciding factor influencing which breed smallholders and breeders will choose . Therefore those birds that can generate some income, or provide the household with food, will probably have the greater appeal.
The rearing of large numbers of Dorking chicks can be expensive (as large birds they have healthy appetites), therefore the ability to sell surplus pullets as laying hens and cockerels as table birds, will help offset some of these costs. If these birds are of a good quality then so much the better. In my own strain of Red Dorkings my breeding strategy is to maximise stamina and hardiness, select for table qualities and fecundity and then, from these strong and productive birds, I select those that best represent the variety according to the Breed Standard. Long before they became beautiful exhibition fowl, they were the nation's finest breed for the table , capable of equalling or bettering the famous table fowls of France. It is my hope that the Dorking breed will regain its fame as our finest table bird and a part of our culinary heritage that we are proud of.
It isn't easy to select for utility qualities as it often involves close monitoring and data collection, particularly when attempting to improve fecundity in a strain. Fortunately for Dorking breeders, the breed standard describes a bird that should excel in table qualities; long and deep keels, short legs, fine frames and prominent, amply muscled breasts. Select according to the standard and you will have fine table birds.
Few of us have the time to inspect trap nests hourly or the facilities to house hens individually, therefore assessing egg output can be tricky. My own method is to inspect the pelvic bones and general appearance of each hen twice a month to determine if she is in-lay. This is not a terribly scientific or fool-proof method of assessing their laying ability, however by recording this information together with the number of eggs in the nest box each day, I believe that it gives me a reasonably good idea of how productive my hens are. It certainly helps me to identify birds that are poor egg producers. I am not looking for a high output of eggs at the expense of table qualities, but it is important that even table breeds produce sufficient eggs to maintain a steady supply of chickens.
Selecting for Table Qualities
The Dorking breed standard has remained unchanged for decades and still describes a bird capable of producing fine table fowl. The following points will be beneficial to both the exhibition and utility breeder, demonstrating that it is possible to produce a strain suitable for both.
The width of a young birds skull is a good indication of the potential width of the bird at maturity, as it is related to the size of the developing skeleton. Table birds should ideally have wide heads, when viewed from above; allowing for differences between the sexes (cockerels should always have wider skulls).
In order to grow into a large bird, capable of carrying abundant muscle, a birds heart, as well as it's other internal organs, must be of a good size. Whilst in the absence of sophisticated equipment, it is impossible to determine the size of a bird's organs, the easiest way to determine a bird's potential to carry well-developed organs is to measure the girth of its body cavity. This can be done by using one's fingers to feel the width of the ribcage just behind the wings. In order to obtain a more accurate assessment, it is important that a bird's legs are pointing towards the rear of the bird.
A table bird should look good when dressed and placed upon the table; this means a flat back and a straight keel. The back should also show good width and continue this width along its length. Placing the palm of the hand on a birds back will reveal any irregularities, which may include a humped or 'roach' back, or a spine out of centre and closer to one of the hip joints than the other. It goes without saying, that a bird showing either of these faults should not be included in the breeding pen.
Imperfections in the keel or breastbone can easily occur in a strain if subtle deviations are not detected in growing stock early on. Once established in a flock this fault is time consuming to correct and therefore early detection will avoid lots of extra work. Whilst this is most likely a genetic defect, it does appear to be linked with skeletal shape and size. Those birds with the largest frames and most elongated keel appear to be particularly susceptible to distortions in the keel. Photographs of show-winning Dorking fowl taken in the early 20th Century often show birds which are a little shorter in the body than the modern exhibition preference. Without more study, it is not possible to prove a link between body shape and keel deformity. However, as I have no reason to believe that a gene responsible for crooked keels is present in my own strain, it will be interesting to observe the effects of selection for longer body length.
In our flocks, conformation to the breed standard is essential, but of equal importance is maintaining those qualities that make them an excellent table bird. These include a good egg output, (particularly in the first few months of the year) together with the ability to put on plenty of breast muscle from a relatively early age. The latter seems obvious, however many larger breeds, including some of the other Dorking varieties, put most of their energy into developing a large skeleton before developing any significant muscle. In contrast, I have selected for early muscle development, enabling me to start culling at 12 weeks, when the young cockerels make plump poussin-sized table birds.
If you would be interested in becoming a Dorking breeder or you would like a few of these tradition hens to enhance your garden, please do contact Nick at The Aymestrey Flock by telephone; 01568 770215 or email me at; firstname.lastname@example.org
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