The History of Dovecotes
Doves and pigeons belong to the same family; the different names are a result of language with dove derived from Nordic language and pigeon coming from French.
Pigeons were a valuable source of fresh meat and eggs, particularly during the winter months. The pigeons could have eight or ten broods a year, and the young birds were considered a delicacy. They were housed in dovecotes that also provided manure for use as fertilizer and ‘saltpetre’, which was valued in the 16th and 17th centuries as an essential ingredient for gunpowder.
The earliest dovecotes were usually sited near a manor house because the right to build one belonged to the Lord of the Manor or the Abbot of a monastery. Having a dovecote became a status symbol, although rules were relaxed in 1619 and thousands of dovecotes were built. By the 17th century there were about 26,000 in England. The early dovecotes were round, a design originating from Rome with walls up to 3 feet thick. Later, dovecotes were square or rectangular and typically built into the corner of a walled enclosure.
Inside, hundreds of nest boxes were built into the walls. There was a small entrance and the pigeons used the vents in the roof to enter and exit. A revolving wooden pole (the potence) with arms for ladders gave access to the nest boxes. The ground floor was often used for hens, storage or sometimes cattle.
The Warmington Dovecote
The Warmington Dovecote is of mixed heritage. The lower section, constructed from large square dressed stone, dates from 14th or 15th century when dovecotes we typically circular in style. The upper part is considered to be a late 16th century reconstruction using mix of stone rubble and larger square stones similar to those of the base. Further rebuilding of the top of the Dovecote is thought to have taken place in the 19th century. The roof is Colleyweston slate with a central octagonal lantern that provides access for the birds. The 797 nest boxes are rather unique. They are constructed from a wood and lath frame covered with mortar. The current nest boxes are early 1980s reconstructions.
Dovecotes fell out of use for a number of reasons. In the middle of the 18th century many became infested with brown rats, a predator that arrived from Europe. They were meat rather than seed eaters and impossible to control, making the dovecote unusable. Pigeons also started to become regarded as pests during the Napoleonic wars when there was an increase in wheat growing, and, when Guano – a new fertilizer – was introduced in the 19th century there was less reliance on pigeon droppings.