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Dovecotes are among the most attractive, but least recognised, curiosities of the British countryside. Hidden away, they are survivors of the thousands that were built since the Norman Conquest to house the vast numbers of pigeons that were bred for food. They come in many shapes and sizes, the result of changing architecture tradition combined with the use of different building materials. Generally speaking, no two dovecotes are identical in every detail. Today very few of these ancient dovecotes are still inhabited by birds.

Early dovecotes were intended solely for the purpose of farming pigeons but as early as the 16th century their construction was already being planned for ornamental or recreational diversion rather than as an adjunct to the kitchen. According to the Tudor physician, Andrew Boorde: 'The country gentleman's residence is not complete without dovecote, a payre of buttes for archery and a bowling alley.' One must assume that the pigeons, possibly fancy varieties, were installed largely for their romantic effect in flight around the grounds.

It was not until the beginning of the 18th century that the decorative potential of dovecotes was fully exploited, particularly those incorporated into the newly fashionable landscape gardens of the period. Although this enthusiasm was less marked in the 20th century, Gertrude Jekyll in her book Garden Ornament, published in 1918, did much to create a revival of interest in decorative dovecotes. Although fewer dovecotes were being built for rearing pigeons for food at this time, due chiefly to the diminishing demand for pigeon meat, the custom was revived during both World Wars. It is known, for example, that between the wars, squabs (three- to four-week-old pigeons) from the home farm at Petworth House, Sussex, were regularly being served at table but, generally speaking, the tradition had become obsolete much earlier.

In the US, the popularity of pigeon pie as a national dish was usurped by the introduction of battery hens in the second half of the century while in France and Egypt, pigeons are still on the menu today. In Britain, the pigeons on sale today are wood pigeons, which are tough and need prolonged cooking unlike the young squabs, which were tender and delicious when grilled.

At the end of the 20th century therefore, apart from the numerous utilitarian lofts used for housing racing pigeons and fancy breeds, very few dovecotes of traditional design were being built, either for farming pigeons or as decorative features. However, during the past 30 years, several interesting examples, of which a few were architect-designed, have been built.

At Dorchester on Thames, Oxfordshire, a courtyard development of retirement homes has small central brick-built circular dovecotes based on a design by Sir Edwin Forbes (originally illustrated in Gertrude Jekyll's book). In Wales at Castell Corryn, Powys, a small corner dovecote occupies an angle of the castellated stone-tower designed in the 1970s and '80s by the architect John Taylor. At Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, the stark, tall structure in the centre of a public open space was designed recently by landscape architect and town planner Tony Southard. This dovecote was intended to house several pairs of birds but has suffered from predators.

In the grounds of Goodwood Park Hotel and Country Club, Sussex, a not-very-imaginative, square brick example houses a handful of white doves, which are kept for their ornamental value and are not bred for the table. On a smaller scale is the top-storey example with a white dove finial at Wilstone, Hertfordshire. In Virginia in the US, unlike these largely ornamental designs, a circular-stone dovecote with a conical copper roof was designed by R de Treville Lawrence in the 1990s to house the White Kings pigeon, bred for food.

Finally, an outstanding modern example in the grounds of a Warwickshire manor house is the elegant circular brick tower with ashlar dressings designed by the architect Andrew Townsend.

The upper-floor glazed belvedere is reached by an inner staircase from the lower dovecote, which is lined with traditional nesting boxes and has a central potent and ladder. Exterior entry holes for the birds are situated below the so-called rat ledge, which encircles the lower third of the outer wall.

Apart from these substantial designs, there are the smaller garden dovecotes on a pole, so-called 'polecotes'. Splendid examples are to be found in the restored garden of Heligan in Megavissey, Cornwall.

Today, pigeons in cities all over the world are feral descendants of those domesticated in the dovecotes of the past.

Several years ago in the town of Basel, Switzerland, Dr Daniel Haag-Wackernagel provided several 'official' pigeon lofts for the birds together with a keeper to clean and also remove the eggs, a crucial factor in controlling numbers. Together with demands that the public stop indiscriminate feeding, after early difficulties, numbers have declined.

Similar schemes have been introduced in Augsburg and Aachen, and more recently lofts have been established in the suburbs of Paris and a striking modern design at Kortrijk in Belgium was completed this year. The Belgian project relied on advice by PICAS (UK's Pigeon Control Advisory Services) which does not advocate culling or poisoning the birds which is both unpleasant and ineffective. The essence of success in each particular case depends on the need for patience while the birds settle into their new habitation. Allowing them time to establish must not be underestimated. Only then can eggs be harvested.

Successful applications have been at Nottingham City Hospital; Heath Park Hospital Cardiff; Trowbridge Town Council;

and Bury St Edmunds. Recently, Melbourne City Council in Australia has adopted PICAS recommendations and erected two pigeon lofts in the city.

Today, there is a certain irony in the fact that we are driven to provide sanctuary for the descendants of the very birds that were refugees from the dovecotes of the past, albeit as a means of limiting, rather than encouraging, their numbers. Things might change, of course, if we rediscover a taste for pigeon pie.

Jean Hansell is the author of The Pigeon in History

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