France’s vanishing pigeon palaces

For the past 30 years, Michel Lucien has roamed the south west region of Occitanie, photographing its historic pigeonniers

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Pigeonniers – or colombiers* – can be seen in many parts of France, either standing alone in a field or near to a house or chateau. No two are identical, making them a rich form of rural architecture.

Pigeons used to be valuable, either for fertiliser, used on the vines in Occitanie until the 20th century, or as food. Up to 400 birds a day were eaten at the court of Louis XIV.

As their dovecotes are no longer in use, many are falling into ruin or have already disappeared.

Michel Lucien, 73, has been fascinated by dovecotes since he was a boy and helped collect the pigeons at his grandparents’ farm in Tarn-et-Garonne.

For the past 30 years, he has roamed Occitanie with his camera, hunting out and photographing as many as he can.

He has published three books on pigeonniers in the Midi-Pyrénées, Tarn and Gers, given talks and exhibitions on the subject, and supported efforts to restore dovecotes.

He thinks he has been partially responsible for a renewed interest in preserving these buildings.

'There are between 5,000 and 6,000 dovecotes in Occitanie, which date from the mid-16th century to the beginning of the 20th century'

“The oldest one still standing is at Château d’Assier in the Lot and dates from 1537. There were dovecotes before that but they have disappeared."

“In the 20th century, their use dwindled as the rich fertiliser they produced from their droppings was replaced by chemicals and, from then on, many of them fell into disuse and disrepair. I know of 20 near where I live that are in such bad condition that they will not last another three years.”

There are at least 12 different types of dovecote in Occitanie alone and each one is different

“No other animal has ever been housed in such ornate and varied architecture.

“You might think they look quite plain, but when you approach these buildings, they have a great deal of detail and decoration. Pigeons made their owners rich and they wanted to show that off.”

You can find cylindrical, square and polygonal towers, from a simple, small drystone structure to buildings which can house thousands of pigeons.

They can be high up on stilts or arches. The roofs may be domed, conical, steepsided or flat. Sculpted metallic or ceramic decorations, from 20cm to 2m in height and often in the form of a pigeon, are frequently found on the tops of dovecotes.

An essential feature was a ledge to keep predators out, placed just below the entry holes, made of stone, brick, slate or metal.

On raised dovecotes, they are called capels and are placed around the pillars, making them look like mushrooms.

The entrance holes are usually round and about 10cm in diameter. How many depends on the numbers of pigeons.

The holes would be grouped from four to 15, with some in the Tarn going up to 36. At Sainte-Cécile d’Avès, near Gaillac, there is one with 54.

Inside, dovecotes are often elaborate, with intricate roof timbers

In larger ones, ladders turn around a central axis to give access to nesting boxes to clean them or to collect eggs or young birds.

The earlier nesting boxes were usually wicker baskets, 25cm in diameter, nailed to the wall. Later, they were also made in clay, brick or wood and incorporated into the wall. They are called boulins, which comes from the name used for the cavity in a building used to support a beam, which is the same shape as a pigeon’s nesting box.

Each detail in a dovecote depended on the whims and wealth of the owner, resulting in the huge variety of styles.

Mr Lucien said it is thought that the Romans introduced dovecotes to France.

The first written trace appears in the 13th century when bastides were constructed and pigeonniers were built to provide both food and fertiliser for the new urban populations

Often the only remaining clue that one existed is in a local name. At Labastide- Gabausse, Tarn, there is a place called Le Colombier and archives show there was a dovecote there in 1589.

Before the Revolution, dovecotes were mostly built for the aristocracy, and in the north of the country only the nobility had the right to build one.

In the south, the rules were more flexible. In 1682, Simon d’Olive, a member of the Toulouse parliament, said “everyone should be allowed to build a dovecote”.

However, the regulations stipulated the owner should have enough land to provide food for the pigeons, at the rate of one hectare for two pigeons. Château d’Assier had 2,300 nests for 1,150 hectares.

In 1769, the records for Larrazet, Tarn-et-Garonne, show there were 11 dovecotes, owned by two noblemen, six bourgeois, a surgeon and two labourers.

After the Revolution, the National Assembly decided everyone everywhere could have their own dovecote

This caused problems between neighbours, as pigeons caused serious damage to crops. Laws were passed to ensure pigeons were locked in during the planting and harvest seasons.

Mr Lucien said that, at first, dovecotes were often built in the middle of fields so farmers could shelter while out working and as a useful place to keep tools.

Later, they were incorporated into the farmyard, or even built on to the main house.

They are found in all cereal-growing areas of France, where there was plenty of food for the pigeons.

Pigeonniers en Midi-Pyrénées by Michel Lucien, published by Massin €25.90

*Michel Lucien says the names pigeonnier and colombier have become synonymous for the same structure and colombier comes from the ancient word for pigeon, coulon. Colombe is now the French word for dove but, according to the RSPB, there is no strict division between pigeons and doves. For example, the rock dove has long been domesticated and escaped from the wild to become the familiar town pigeon.

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