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A Dovecote is a house for doves and pigeons, usually placed at a height above the ground, with openings and provision inside for roosting and breeding. They are also known as a pigeon house, culvery, culverhay or culverhouse (culver being Anglo Saxon for Pigeon), Doocot in Scotland, Cholomendy (meaning dove house in Welsh) and columbarium in Latin.

Their purpose was a functional one, to house pigeons or doves. For centuries pigeons and doves were an important food source and were kept for their eggs, meat, dung and feathers. Their down and feathers were used to fill pillows and feather beds and a common superstition was that those who slept on pigeon feathers would live to a ripe old age. Their dung was also highly rated and had a number of uses, not only being used as a fertilizer, but was also used in the tanning industry to soften leather, and in the early 17th century it was a major source of salpetre used in the manufacture of gunpowder. However it was for their flesh and eggs, especially in winter when other meat was scarce, that they were particularly valued.

In 1600 Oliver de Serres wrote in his book on agriculture that ‘no man need ever have an ill-provisioned house if there be but attached to it a dovecot, a warren and a fishpond wherein meat may be found as readily at hand as if it were stored in a larder.’

Norton Sub Hamdon Dovecot, Somerset

They can be found all over the country in various locations and we have produced three listings of those we have been able to identify so far, and they can be found in the following pages:

We have also produced an article specifically looking at Scottish Doocots where they were prolific where some areas such as Fife and East Lothian had a very large number. They also had two particular designs the 'beehive' and the 'lectern' and good examples of these are still standing today, although there are many more in ruin.

Bogwood Doocot St Andrews Fife - Beehive Style
Photo by Jim Bain

Today they are still popular although now as a decorative feature in gardens and usually on a smaller scale, built of wood, than those of the past.


They were introduced to Britain during the Norman period, although some think the Romans may have introduced them earlier. However it is believed that doves were not commonly kept in the UK until after the Norman invasion. The earliest known examples of dove keeping occur in Norman castles of the 12th century, for example, at Rochester Castle in Kent, where nest holes can be seen in the keep,  or the later castle at Westenhanger that has a dovecote tower. Documentary references of dovecotes begin in the 12th century.

In medieval Europe the possession of a dovecote was a symbol of status and power and was regulated by law, with only nobles being allowed to have them. In the Middle Ages, in the UK, it was a feudal privilege restricted to barons, abbots and lords of the manor. So the few remaining medieval dovecotes, we see today still standing or in ruins, are connected with manor houses, castles, parsonages or former monastic sites. By the late 17th century there were an estimated 26,000 dovecotes in Britain, more than anywhere else in the world. We have only so far identified around 400 that are still standing, either preserved or in ruin, today.

Penmon Dovecot, Penmon, Anglesey

The laws were relaxed after about 1600, so later many farms had dovecotes, although amongst farmers they became unpopular complaining that their crops were ravaged by the birds. By the 18th century their use declined due to improved winter fodder which made it possible to slaughter cattle, sheep and pigs for year round consumption and therefore the need for pigeon meat was no longer required. It was also probably the introduction of the parliamentary enclosures of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which introduced a new type of tenant with a greater individual investment in his land, less prepared to tolerate the damage that pigeons and doves did to his crops.

However birds were often still kept in small numbers in this period, but they tended to be housed in the gable ends of buildings or in lofts above farm buildings. From the 18th century there was a trend to build farm buildings in organised groups in neat layouts and dovecotes often stood in the centre of the yards and sometimes they would be above an impressive entrance arch. Away from the farmyard a shelter for livestock was sometimes provided as a loggia around a dovecote and therefore the building would have a double use.

Dovecotes also continued to be built as ornamental features in the landscape and many of these then started to take on different shapes and styles as their function had changed from being functional to decorative.

Satunton Dovecote and fishpond Gloucestershire.
Photo by Roger Davies

Pigeons as a Food Source

Pigeons or Doves that were kept in Dovecotes are descended from the blue rock pigeon, or the semi-domesticated Rock Dove (Columba livia). This breed were chosen because they could be domesticated and were plump enough to eat. They are the ancestors of the common feral pigeons found in towns today. They mate for life and breed almost all year round, each pair having on average 2 chicks every 2 months for 7 years without needing to be fed by the pigeon keepers. Although some landowners did feed them during some parts of the year.

Young pigeons, called squabs or 'peesers' will stay with their parents for around 4-6 weeks so they were harvested when they were about four weeks old, by this point they have reached adult size but have not yet flown, so it made them easier to catch. They were usually harvested in the morning when the parent birds were out feeding. Adult pigeons would be culled to remove unproductive stock and during the 19th century large numbers of birds were trapped with nets for shooting matches.

Pigeons provided eggs and fresh meat all year round but were particularly needed in winter, when other food sources were not in as plentiful a supply. Numerous recipes have come down to us ranging from humble pigeon dumplings, Pigeon Pie to the 'Grand Patty of Pidgeons Royal'.

Squab is dark meat, and the skin is fatty, like duck. The meat is very lean, easily digestible, and is rich in proteins, minerals, and vitamins and has been described as having a silky texture, as it is very tender and fine grained. It has a milder taste than other game, and has been described as having a mild berry flavour.

Domesticated pigeons are accustomed to their dovecote so they go off to forage but return to rest and breed. For a greater yield, commercially raised squab may be produced in a two-nest system, where the mother lays two new eggs in a second nest while the squabs are still growing in the first nest, fed by their father.

Malton Farm Dovecote, Maldretch, Cambrdigeshire
17th-18th Century Timber Framed and weatherboraded

Photo by Keith Edkins

When is a Dovecot not a Dovecot

In the past the dovecot had a practical application, that of providing food for the country household. Today they are considered more of a decorative feature or have been remodelled to perform another function, such as a human residence. So trying to identify a building of whatever shape as a dovecote is not as easy as it first appears. Dovecote Construction takes a look at the different designs and what to look out for, the various parts that make up the dovecote on the outside as well as what to look out for inside.

Some dovecote style buildings may not always be dovecots, such as in the case of Ascott Park in Oxfordshire  where there are two similar octagonal buildings near to each other. The one with a tiled roof and dormer opening is the dovecot but the other has a thatched roof and is a building with two functions, an ice house with granary above. It is also the case that sometimes the building was built to serve two different functions like the one at Bemerton Farm in Wiltshire where the upper part was the dovecot, and the lower level housed chickens.

The thatched structure in the foreground is the ice house/granary
the structure behind is the dovecote.
Photo by Andrew Smith

Some may also have had a previous life, such as Melville Doocot in Fife which started off as a windmill in the 1700's and was converted to a dovecot later, or Rockville Farm Doocot in East Lothian that was also originally an 18th century windmill and later used as Doocot.

While some were only built as follies from the outset and have never been used as a dovecot, it is just a decorative feature in the landscape.

There are buildings that were built for another purpose from the outset, but made to look like a dovecote although this was never its intention. Such as at Lytes Cary Manor in Somerset where it is a water pump house but from the outside looks like a dovecot, but it never has been.

With preservation and restoration some dovecotes have been brought back to life and we are able to see and experience them in many parts of the country. However some have slipped through and have taken on a new lease of life with another function, where either dovecotes or barns that also contained a dovecote have since been converted into residential use, but there still may be some of the features left. These features can sometimes just be seen on the outside, such as the two houses at Duntisbourne Leer in Gloucestershire where from the outside you can see the entry holes, or in the case of Church House, Bibury where one of the upstairs bedrooms internally still has some of the nest boxes in the wall, no longer in use of course. I wouldn't want to be their cleaner!

Dovecotes within another building in this case two houses

Duntisbourne Leer Farm Dovecote (left) and Duntisbourne Leer Cottage Dovecot in Gloucestershire 

See Also

Dovecote Construction

Scottish Doocots

Dovecots in England 

Dovecots in Wales

Doocots in Scotland


By: Tracey Park Section: Heritage Section Key:
Page Ref: dovecots Topic: Dovecots  Last Updated: 09/2009

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