Sunday, 13 February 2011

Felsham Dovecotes

Last month I described how Felsham is “moat famous” because it contains a relatively large number of moated sites for a parish of its size. An important function of a moat was as a source of food: wild duck, geese and swan for the medieval table supplemented by fish on non-meat days.

An additional source of protein would have been provided by pigeons bred in dovecotes. It is quite possible that there were dovecotes on most of the farms in Felsham though historians tell us that ownership of dovecotes were largely a privilege of the feudal overlord. Dovecotes were used in Britain for over 700 years and because pigeons can breed as many as six times a year they would have been extraordinarily productive and very valuable.

Evidence of the existence of dovecotes can be found by looking on maps for field names such as Dovehouse Yard or Dovecote Pasture. Sometimes, actual structures are shown: an estate map of Felsham Hall Farm in 1729 shows a dovecote to the north of the moated farmstead at one end of a long pond.

What would these dovecotes have looked like? Almost certainly, they would have been built of materials similar to the original farmhouse and its surrounding barns and outhouses. The drawing below shows the timber-framed dovecote, constructed in the late 16th century, which still stands at Church Farm in Clare.

The building measures 6m by 5.5m and is 3.65m high to the eaves. The walls are clad with lath and plaster, and with weather boards on the lower half. (This was often done in farmyards to protect the plaster from damage by farm animals.)

Dovecotes would have been proofed against vermin at the lower levels, with closable apertures in the roof to give birds access. There would also have been ladders inside to enable the owner to harvest the “squabs” [baby pigeons]. The interior of the dovecote would be dimly lit and its upper walls would contain ledges or shelves to create nesting conditions that closely mimicked those in the wild.

It was important that dovecotes had a nearby water supply [i.e. a moat or pond] because, like many grain-eating birds, rock doves are well known for their strong thirst.

In addition to providing pigeon meat, the dovecote also supplied feathers for stuffing material, while the droppings were valued as fertiliser and as an ingredient for softening leather in the tanning process.

The use of dovecotes declined in the 18th century. Writers of the time often condemned pigeon-keeping as causing a great waste of cereals and as a nuisance to other farmers.

More information about the dovecote at Felsham Hall Farm in 1729 can be found at

Recipe for Stewed pigeon from ‘Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management’

INGREDIENTS - 6 pigeons, a few slices of bacon, 3 oz. of butter, 2 tablespoonfuls of minced parsley, sufficient stock No. 104 to cover the pigeons, thickening of butter and flour, 1 tablespoonful of mushroom ketchup, 1 tablespoonful of port wine.

Mode.—Empty and clean the pigeons thoroughly, mince the livers, add to these the parsley and butter, and put it into the insides of the birds. Truss them with the legs inward, and put them into a stewpan, with a few slices of bacon placed under and over them; add the stock, and stew gently for rather more than 1/2 hour. Dish the pigeons, strain the gravy, thicken it with butter and flour, add the ketchup and port wine, give one boil, pour over the pigeons, and serve.

Time.—Rather more than 1/2 hour. Average cost, 6d. to 9d. each.

Sufficient for 4 or 5 persons.