Sunday, February 19, 2006

Dovecote Attractor

A few years ago I had the pleasure of spending a few days at my wife’s aunt’s farmhouse in Vaour, in the south of France. It was one of the high points in a most unusual—and quite enjoyable—four weeks, five countries, and an itinerary that was completely trashed on day two. I had recently read "The Da Vinci Code," as well as the similar, deeper, and far more interesting novel "The Eight" by Katharine Neville. Suffice it to say that Robert Anton Wilson’s spirit of synchronicity was alive an well that August: I found myself accidentally—and quite literally—transported from hiking on the dales of northern England to being attacked by bats while exploring a Cathar stronghold next to a Templar fortress that cast a shadow on the aforementioned farmhouse. Oh, and to cap it all off, the entire village is a de-facto retirement home for 1968-era counterculture circus performers. Seriously. Imagine the classic scene of the old men playing petanq in the village square, only substitute fire dancers. But I digress… in a sharp and much needed departure from the geopolitics focus of late, let me return to another of my favorite topics, and in the process explain how my rambling introduction is actually relevant. The farm house, you see, had a dovecote

A dovecote? Yes, and in this case, it was actually the recipient of a French government grant for refurbishment. Besides an excuse for sweat-suit ensconced, aging Mafiosi to tend to pigeons on New York roof tops, what could a dovecote possible be good for? Quite a lot it turns out. The dovecote is actually an exemplary nutrient attractor, a paragon of permaculture principles, and a long-forgotten mainstay of sustainability.

What is a dovecote? Forgive me if you consider this common knowledge, but it certainly wasn’t to be found anywhere on my school curriculum. A dovecote is a glorified bird house. It would normally house pigeons or some species of dove, but even a bat box accomplishes the same function: it’s a single point of collection for nitrogen-rich bird dropping fertilizer. And that, it turns out, is a very valuable function. A dove or pigeon will produce somewhere in the range of one pound dry weight of droppings a week—roughly the same as what they eat in the form of grains and insects. So a dovecote that houses a hundred doves will produce over the course of one year about 5000 pounds of fertilizer. Maybe these roof-top Mafiosi were on to something?

They can also be quite stylish:

But that said, a more theoretical analysis: dovecotes act as an attractor, channeling already existing natural forces to create an accumulation of energy at a place, and in a form, that is highly useable to small-scale, localized endeavors such as horticulture. In an energy descent environment, large-scale industrial farming just won’t work in the absence of petroleum-based fertilizers. Dovecotes won’t change that. However, when associated with a backyard garden, a food-forest, or similar, they can be enormously powerful. While it is certainly useful to look to our hunter-gatherer ancestors for inspiration and guidance in dealing with an energy descent world, there are still a few hidden gems like this to be found in the much more recent past…

Here's a nice little resource on dovecotes.


Jeff Vail said...

Some additional info regarding the importance of a colombarium (dovecote) near Buttevant, Ireland (courtesy of Rob at

"The priory complex also incorporated a substantial gatehouse as well as columbarium (the dovecot), the inside walls of which are built in square compartments in regular tiers to a height of fifteen feet. There are some three hundred and fifty two niches, divided into eleven tiers each containing thirty-two compartments. The tiers begin above ground level so as to allow for the collection of droppings and end well below the flight hole in the roof since doves will not perch near busily frequented exits. The columbarium at Ballybeg, is typically located away from the main priory buildings, and still conserves a string course around the circumference of the building which served not only as a structural strenthhening of the building but also to prevent weasels, martins or other vermin from scaling the walls to the entrances. The columbarium's importance stemmed from its having been a source of revenue for the priory as its principal agricultural purpose was the production of fertiliser. Pigeon fertiliser ( guano) was essential for herb gardens and economically more highly valued than equivalents produced by cattle, sheep or pigs. It was also a sine qua non for the successful growing of hemp which was widely used for cloth, rope and sack making. A example of the economic importance attached to pigeon guano may be guaged from the miniature for the month of February, painted by the Limburg brothers in 1416, in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, presently conserved at Chantilly, in the Musée Condé (Ms 65). [1]

Since pigeons could themselves be regarded as vermin and capable of wrecking damage on grain crops, columbaria were strictly controlled by medieval law. While tenants and others were permitted to keep a few pairs of doves in their roof-attics, a dovecot, such as that at Ballybeg, was the exclusive prerogative of the landowner who, in turn, was restricted to one nest per arpent, a medieval French measure of land of about an acre and a quarter. From this, we can infer that at the time of the construction of the dovecot at Ballybeg, the priory owned something in the region of four hundred and forty acres of land. Likewise, by comparing the Ballybeg dovecot with other surviving examples in Ireland, it is possible to guage the importance of the priory in relation to other contemporary religious houses: the dovecot attached to the Trinitarian priory in Adare, Co. Limerick, for example, is much smaller, indicating a religious house of proportions a good deal more modest than those of Ballybeg. In France, the medieval ordinances concerning dovecots were only abolished in 1789.

Jeff Vail said...

On another note: I would love to hear people's thoughts on the possible nexus of dovecotes and avian flu. It seems to me that there would be less exposure than in the case of modern industrial agriculture--owing to the fact that dovecotes are generally left alone until the guano is removed every year (or if it is colocated with a compost pile, every few months when it is rotated...)??

Anonymous said...

Interesting, Jeff. Never heard of the dovecote before.

However, my own pursuit of permaculture would lead me toward investing more in the idea and less in the actual procedure. Bird houses, bat houses, small mammal and reptilian 'dens' (whether stacked rocks, rotted logs, etc) spaced throughout the garden... then you can accumulate the benefit of the animals without the tediousness of spreading guano each year.

But that's just me ;-)


Anonymous said...

Where I live, in Scotland, old, ruined dovecotes (or, doo'cots as they're known here) are fairly common as almost every castle had one close by and you can hardly move in Scotland without tripping over a ruined castle! They were primarily used to provide extra protein in the winter (they'd harvest the birds for meat).


columba said...

Thanks Jeff for the reference to Ballybeg Abbey columbarium. I wrote it and posted it on the wikipedia article on Buttevant. The rest of the article is there to complete the picture.


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