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English Gardens: Everything You Need to Know About Dovecotes

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English Gardens: Everything You Need to Know About Dovecotes

June 8, 2018

Let’s decode the dovecote—the ultimate birdhouse and a quintessential element of English gardens. Where did these charming shelters for pigeons and doves originate? Would you like one for your own garden? If so, what is the best source? Read on.

Photography by Britt Willoughby Dyer, except where noted.

See more of this garden at Old-Lands: A Modern Welsh Garden, from a Bygone Age.
Above: See more of this garden at Old-Lands: A Modern Welsh Garden, from a Bygone Age.

First, a quick history lesson. Dovecotes have been attached to the facades of houses or constructed as entirely separate buildings since medieval times in England and Europe (although they are also recorded in Roman times and across Egypt and Iran too). Some of those early European buildings still survive: An ancient circular dovecote at Garway in Herefordshire, England (built in 1326 and resembling a silo) is still standing today.

Doves aren&#8
Above: Doves aren’t the only visitors who can find temporary lodging at Welsh estate Old-Lands. Guests in the holiday cottages can order produce from the walled garden on the 1,000-acre property.

Dovecote interiors are filled with nesting holes where doves or pigeons can nest and nurture their offspring. And while dovecotes—or pigeonniers as they are known in France—may seem like a romantic architectural accessory to country houses, these structures had pragmatic origins. Dovecotes filled with pigeons guaranteed a continuous food source. For wealthy landowners, birds were a source of food for the house. As the young birds had not yet flown the meat was tender, while older birds were not such an appetizing delicacy.

A freestanding dovecote at Bryan’s Ground in Herefordshire provides a vantage point viewing the garden from the dining room upstairs. For more, see Bryan’s Ground: Bloomsbury Revisited, on the Edge of Wales.
Above: A freestanding dovecote at Bryan’s Ground in Herefordshire provides a vantage point viewing the garden from the dining room upstairs. For more, see Bryan’s Ground: Bloomsbury Revisited, on the Edge of Wales.

Dovecotes can be extravagant structures in their own right—architectural features within the grounds of grand houses. The round stone dovecote at Rousham, which is covered in verdant climbers and roses, is one of the Oxfordshire garden’s most recognizable features with its beautiful turret roof and louvered top. Some of these early brick or stone dovecotes on country estates have since been converted into buildings for leisure or, in some cases, even homes.

 A Lead Roof Buckingham Dovecote can accommodate up to six pairs of nesting doves and comes painted in Farrow & Ball&#8
Above: A Lead Roof Buckingham Dovecote can accommodate up to six pairs of nesting doves and comes painted in Farrow & Ball’s Old White; £695 at Saville’s.
For a classic dovecote, consider a UK-made birdhouse from makers such as Mark’s Dovecotes (specializing in freestanding designs) or Dovetails (which offers a painted, wall-mounted model with five nesting holes for £275). For a made-to-order, hand-painted dovecote, see the bespoke collection at Robinson Gardens.

 While there is nothing to stop other types of birds from nesting in a dovecote, the nesting boxes are tailor-made for the size of a dove or pigeon.
Above: While there is nothing to stop other types of birds from nesting in a dovecote, the nesting boxes are tailor-made for the size of a dove or pigeon.
 For many gardeners a timber dovecote added to the gable end of a country house or freestanding in a lush orchard or meadow is a bucolic symbol of a time gone by.
Above: For many gardeners a timber dovecote added to the gable end of a country house or freestanding in a lush orchard or meadow is a bucolic symbol of a time gone by.

Twist some climbing roses around it and you also have a useful plant support.

If you want to add a garden element to benefit birds, pollinators, or other wildlife, start with our curated guides to Garden Design 101, including Everything You Need to Know About Fountains. Read more:

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