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A brief history of dovecotes (and pigeon droppings)

A brief history of dovecotes (and pigeon droppings)

Owning a dovecote was once a status symbol for Britain's elite—but what's that got to do with pigeon guano? We trace the pigeon's fall from prized bird to city pest

In the 16th century, it was not unusual to see armed men standing guard outside Britain’s dovecotes. They were not there to protect the pigeons roosting inside, but rather to prevent thieves from breaking in and stealing something far more valuable—the birds’ dung.

"For several decades pigeon droppings were almost as valuable as silver"

Chemists in mid-1500s Nuremburg had discovered that bird guano was a rich source of saltpetre, a vital ingredient in the making of gunpowder. As a consequence, for several decades pigeon droppings were almost as valuable as silver.

Understandably, the idea of cashing in on this bonanza swiftly gripped the nation. By the middle of the following century, there were an estimated 26,000 dovecotes in Britain. Fewer than 400 survive today.

When dovecotes came to Britain

The practice of keeping stocks of the domesticated version of the common rock pigeon was introduced to Britain by the Romans.

The Normans kept pigeons in specially constructed niches in castles and baileys. Britain’s oldest surviving free-standing dovecote was built by the Knights Templar at Garway in Herefordshire in 1326.

These days, dovecotes—also known as columbarium, culverhouses and, in Scotland, doocots—are ornamental, but when most of the dovecotes in Britain were built they were a vital source of meat, eggs and feathers.

The latter were particularly prized because it was believed that those who slept on a mattress stuffed with pigeon down would live to a ripe old age.

Dung gathered from the dovecotes was a rich fertiliser, particularly sought after by those with vineyards and orchards. It could also be used to tan leather.

From function to fashion—the evolution of the dovecote

Pastoral painting of dovecote by river, where a woman stands by a man holding a fishing rodFrancois Boucher, The Dovecote, 1758

The dovecote was not only a source of food and revenue in medieval times, but also a status symbol. The privilege of building or owning dovecotes was reserved for barons, abbots and lords of the manor. The right was granted by the monarch.

Those who were allowed to build a dovecote usually placed it in some prominent place, so that passersby could see it. 

In the 15th century, members of this elite would have a dovecote, a rabbit warren and a carp pond to use as a larder during the bleak winter months, when regular livestock and game were too thin from lack of food to be worth consuming.

Pigeons were usually eaten as young chicks (known as squabs). The most common way to serve them was baked in a pie. Pigeon meat was so popular that some huge British dovecotes could house as many as 30,000 birds.

Towards the end of her reign, Queen Elizabeth I decided to open pigeon-breeding to the free market. Now anyone with enough money and land could build a columbarium.

"The dovecote quickly became something for the fashionable gentlemen to show off to his friends"

As a consequence of this change in the law, culverhouses sprang up all over the countryside. The building craze was given fresh impetus by the value of saltpetre.

The dovecote quickly became something for the fashionable gentlemen to show off to his friends, along with his silk ruff and long duelling rapier. It was said that at this time the country home of the trendy young squire was incomplete without “a dovecote, a payre of butts for archery and a bowling alley”.

Architectural styles varied from place to place. Some dovecotes—such as the one you can see today at Much Marcle in Gloucestershire—were octagonal. Others were bee-hived shaped, like the one in Embleton, Northumberland

Some, such as the one at Newark Castle near Glasgow, were converted from the towers of demolished buildings.

The famous 16th-century dovecote at Willington in Bedfordshire looks like a small Dutch house, while the doocot at Eglinton Mains in Ayrshire resembles a giant lectern.

The dovecote's demise

Painting of peasant workers drinking around dovecote, with one person climbing ladder to look insideJan Steene, The Dovecote, 1660

The profusion of dovecotes across the British countryside was not universally welcomed. Even small columbarium had nesting holes for 500 birds. Each day they flew off to gorge themselves on other people’s crops.

As all gardeners know, pigeons can play havoc with freshly seeded beds. By the middle of the 17th century, the plague of pigeons was so great that poet John Milton voiced his fears that the ravaging doves would turn England into a desert.

Luckily, before that could happen, the value of pigeons as winter meat tailed off thanks to the work of Charles “Turnip” Townsend.

"These once elite and coveted birds became the feral urban pigeon that we know today"

An agricultural revolutionary, Townsend had—per his nickname—introduced the turnip to Britain around 1700 as a means of keeping farm livestock fat enough to eat through the dark months.

Later, vast quantities of natural saltpetre were discovered in Chile and California, destroying the value of pigeon dung as a chemical resource.

Keeping pigeons was no longer necessary nor profitable, nor even fashionable. During the 18th and 19th centuries, around 95 per cent of Britain’s dovecotes fell into disuse and were demolished.

Now homeless, the tens of thousands pigeons that had once inhabited the dovecotes flew off to find somewhere else to live.

A species that in the wild had nested on cliffs, the birds discovered that Britain’s rapidly growing towns and cities were full of the sort of rock-faces they liked to roost on—humans called them “buildings”.

And so these once elite and coveted birds settled there. Over time they’d become the feral urban pigeon that we know today.

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