The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Dovecotes of Dorset

David Bailey pictures some of the iconic pigeon homes in Dorset

This dovecote, in Stock Gaylard, near Lydlinch, is now an ornamental summerhouse and is possibly medieval in initial construction, which would make it one of the oldest in Dorset. Its rainwater head dates from 1675 and the dovecote was extensively remodelled in the late 18th/early 19th century, at which point a clock was added to the upper storey.

 

A dovecote in a particularly attractive situation is that at Melplash Court, Netherbury, south of Beaminster. Inside it has pigeon holes from 3 feet above ground upwards, so as to prevent rats from accessing the pigeon’s eggs.

Dovecotes, and their history and usage, are a little-understood part of Dorset’s agricultural heritage. They appear in a huge variety of shapes and sizes and cover a wide period of construction and were in widespread use until the end of the 18th century. But what precise purpose did they serve and why are they no longer much used?

These triangular pigeon houses on the side of White Mill at Sturminster Marshall are a fine example of the smaller scale of dovecote

Their function was quite simple: they were rearing houses for squabs – young pigeons, which had not yet flown and were thus blessed with very tender meat. Dovecotes first appeared in Britain in the 12th century but, following the French revolutionary wars, it became less economic to feed pigeons on grain than it was to sell the grain itself, so high had cereal prices risen during the war years. This fact, along with the proximity – in the north and centre of the county – of areas of commercial cress cultivation, and the general view in some quarters of pigeons as rapacious vermin, meant that dovecotes fell out of favour. They either went to wrack and ruin, or were reborn or adapted in another guise – often as granaries or stables, or other uses.

Staddle-stone mounted, this octagonal dovecote at Wyke Farm near Gillingham is early 19th-century and was probably built as a dual-function granary and dovecote

Dovecotes’ association with the luxury of the squabs’ tender meat led to their appearance on wealthy estates as status symbols, hence the seeming extravagance of the scale and quality of the materials and designs of some of the grander ones. Some dovecotes were splendid stone structures with buttressed walls, others made of more utilitarian brick, or even wooden structures attached to existing buildings. Whether purely functional or aesthetically enhanced, though, they needed to be protected against the entry of birds of prey, polecats and martens and, following the arrival of the brown rat in the 1730s, against the anything-but-strictly vegetarian rattus Norvegicus. The vegetarian native black rat had not hitherto been an issue.

One of the better-known dovecotes in Dorset is that at Athelhampton; it is listed, perhaps conservatively, as having been built in the 16th century

Some popular myths about dovecotes exist, largely owing to the work of well-intentioned, but poorly informed, writers in the 19th century.

These Victorian myths include that:

• Pigeons provided year-round meat. In fact, although pigeons can breed in winter, few do, and the adult birds were so tough as to require two hours’ steaming before roasting.

This rectangular dovecote at Shroton Farm in Iwerne Courtney is 17th-century in origin and is lined with nesting boxes formed of thin stone slabs supported on square blocks

• Turnips spelt the end for dovecotes; although turnips as a fodder crop allowed other meat to be more plentiful (and thus cheaper) during winter months, as pigeon wasn’t a winter meat anyway, the 17th-century introduction of turnips made no difference.

This dovecote, at Moreton Gardens near Dorchester, echoed by the nearer birdhouse, is listed as a gazebo by English Heritage, but its earlier original function is easily inferred from the octagonal building’s cupola, through which the pigeons would have accessed the dovecote

• Peasants had no defence against marauding pigeons. This was true in France, but in England, it was certainly permissible to scare them off – children were often employed in this regard, although from 1603 it was illegal actually to kill them.

 

The apertures at the entrance to this dovecote at Coombe Farm in Langton Matravers are there to ensure that larger birds of prey are unable to enter

Dorset Life would like to thank John McCann, author of The Dovecotes and Pigeon Lofts of Wiltshire  (www.mccannhistoricbuildings.co.uk) for his invaluable assistance in the preparation of this article.

This building at Fordegrange Farm in Thorncombe is, strictly speaking, not a dovecote; it is a barn with an elaborate arrangement of external nest-holes in one gable-end wall, but it performed the same function, albeit with rather looser protection afforded than would a bespoke dovecote

The 17th-century Pigeon-House at Church Farm, Trent. A relatively rare thatched dovecote. It has a two-leaf plank door on its west face with three round access holes. Inside there are clay-cob pigeon holes.

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