Doves, Dovecotes, St David’s Day

dovecote, Nymans

Doves and dovecotes – the link to your garden, or to a large, country house garden is obvious. But what might be the link to St David, the patron saint of Wales?

St David’s Day falls on March 1st.

Many people will be aware of the saint’s connection with leeks; including that mentioned in Shakespeare’s play Henry V.

And of course, the spring flowering yellow daffodil (Narcissus) also belongs to St David.

You can read suggestions for daffodils to enjoy in your garden, and how to grow leeks in the links at the foot of the page.

But St David also has a dove as symbol.Domestic pigeon, Columba livia, single white dove in dovecote, Midlands, UK, iStock-462209099

He is most commonly represented as standing on a hill with a dove resting on his left shoulder. The legend is that St David was preaching in the middle of a large crowd and couldn’t be seen. So a miracle happened and a hill arose under the saint’s feet so he could be seen by everyone. A white dove alighted on his shoulder as he addressed the crowd around him.

Now it has long been a wish of mine to have doves and a dovecote in my garden.

I’ve kept hens, but they are altogether a different sort of bird. None the less enjoyable, but different. Prosaic perhaps, rather than romantic.

Equally I’ve been fascinated by the many styles of dovecotes. Solid, historical ones of stone, small, modern wooden ones. Dovecotes with a room below. Dovecotes which are really something else – like a water tower perhaps.


cat, clematis and dovecote shaped bird feeder on garden table

These days we may have a tendency to consider doves and dovecotes from a romantic perspective. And why shouldn’t we? A pair of white, fantailed doves cooing on the perch of a small dovecote whilst nearby lovers sit under an arbour of scented white roses. A pretty scene for Valentine’s Day and beyond, encapsulating an important element of romantic garden design.

However, historically, whilst the romance of doves has been a part of literary tradition since the Middle Ages, it wasn’t their prime function in the garden.


A Brief History of Doves and Dovecotes

Dovecotes are believed to have originated in the Middle East where dove dung was used in quantity as fertilizer for crops.

pigeon houses, dovecotes, Qatar, iStock-510310566

Doves were possibly brought to Britain by the Romans, certainly kept doves in dovecotes – columbaria.

Medieval dovecotes were mainly found in wealthy noble households and in monasteries. The peasantry had to make do with catching woodpigeons. Which had the advantage of being a form of pest control.

Columba livia is the white dove and a tunnel dweller. So it took easily to living in the stone and wooden dovecotes. Dovecotes were effectively the battery hen coops of their times.

Penmon dovecote, anglesey, marie shallcross, wales, penmon priory

Once domesticated, the doves provided a regular source of food. Eggs, of course. But a pair of doves could provide young birds, squabs, every few weeks over the warmer months. These were tender to eat and highly prized.

And of course doves also provided fertiliser for the pleasure garden and kitchen gardens. Pigeon dung gets a mention in thirteenth century texts as useful addition to the productive monastic gardens.

As a seed and grain eater, the white dove is not destructive in the same way that pigeons are. So placing dovecotes near to gardens made perfect sense.

doves in the courtyard, cothele, cornwall, marie shallcross

From the late eighteenth century, the Napoleonic Wars brought a need for the increased production of wheat and more profitable forms of meat. Dovecotes were kept by landed gentry for their own pleasure. They had never been a main source of protein for the general population, but ceased to be an economic option where profit margins were a factor.

Many dovecotes became romantic ruins, or were used for other means, as grain stores for example. And doves became pleasing additions to romantic gardens rather than a food and manure supply.


Plants named after Doves

Cornus davidia involucrata, dove tree, handkerchief treeCornus davidia involucrata has beautiful flowing white bracts. These have led to its common names of the handkerchief tree and the dove tree.

geranium robertianum, herb robert, storksbill, doves foot, native species, pink flowers,aromatic foliage, leaves turn red in autumn, annualGeranium robertianum is a British native species. Known as Herb Robert, another of its common names is dove’s foot’, due to the shape of the leaves.

As for me, I’m still waiting my white dove to appear in my garden with her mate. One should have dreams to aim for, it helps keep you sane when you count nine pigeons fighting for possession of the bird feeder…


Some Related Gardening blogs you may enjoy

Leeks for St David’s Day
Daffodils for St David’s Day
5 Miniature Daffodils for Pots and Containers
Daffodils – Heralds of Spring in your Garden
Knowing your Onions – Grow Your Own Gardening
Daffodil bulb – poisonous bulbs

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