Although the traditional May rook shoot is no longer the major rural event it once was, there are still times when corvid numbers need to be kept in check and an airgun is just the tool for the job.

In days gone by, shooters would gather during mid-May to take part in the annual brancher shoot. By all accounts, it was a real highlight of the countryside calendar, and people of all ages and from all walks of life would make for the local rookery to let loose at the fledgling rooks as they clambered from their nests in the tops of the loftiest trees to prepare for their maiden flight.

But these folk didn’t only regard rooks as a pest; the birds were actually considered something of a delicacy. The thought of snacking on a tough (and presumably very bitter, when you think about their diet) old corvid no longer appeals to the average palate, but our recent ancestors knew that the tender breast meat of young branchers tasted delicious in a classic rook pie.

I must confess that I’m actually quite fond of rooks — not as a part of my diet but as a feature of the countryside. The rookery is a quintessential part of rural England and our villages would be all the poorer without them and the distinctive croaking calls of their residents — far less annoying than the shrill screech of a crow or the sinister rattle of a magpie.

I don’t believe that rooks are quite such aggressive predators as crows and magpies when it comes to raiding the eggs and the young of other birds, and it is claimed that they do some good by feeding on creepy-crawly pests such as wire-worms and leatherjackets.

When to reduce numbers

Yet there are times when numbers need to be reduced. Even a moderately sized flock (or “parliament”) can decimate crops. Rooks have an uncanny ability to home-in on working tractors and quickly descend, using their long beaks to pluck freshly drilled seeds from the ground.

I’ve also been called on to thin out rooks when oversized rookeries close to homes create a health risk from the filth that accumulates from the unceasing shower of droppings. These birds like living cheek to jowl, and it can get pretty messy underneath.

Adult rooks have the same sharp eyesight and inherent fear of man as crows and magpies, and can be very difficult to outwit. I’ve set up hides and used decoys to lure them within range of the airgun, but it’s much easier to target the branchers if you want to make a proper dent in their numbers. Shooting these gullible young birds as they hop and flap from branch to branch is not exactly challenging but it makes for effective pest control.

Practising different angles

Back in the day, some exquisite little guns were crafted for brancher shooting. Ingenious firearms from mini-shotguns to scaled-down rifles were made with rooks in mind. I don’t doubt that some are still giving good service, but a modern airgun is up to the task if you don’t have an antique piece.

Branchers usually shuffle out from their nests and on to swaying limbs from the second week in May; something the shooter can capitalise on for a week or so before the birds master their wings and take flight when spooked. This year I would expect the window of opportunity to arrive later after the cold winter.

Everything in the countryside looks several weeks behind so I reckon the branchers will also be late.

While waiting, time is well spent getting familiar with the physics of shooting an airgun at a steep upward angle. Young rooks deserve the same swift despatch as all quarry species, so your pellet must find its way to a vital organ — either with head shots or with a direct hit to the heart and lung area. Though lacking the guile (and mobility) of their seniors, fledgling rooks can be hard to hit simply because they tend to inhabit the highest branches.

When taking relatively flat shots, a pellet fired from an airgun follows a course that is quite easy to predict with a little practice. If your airgun is zeroed at around 30m, the pellet leaves the muzzle a couple of inches below the line of sight until it meets the centre of the cross-hairs at somewhere between 12m and 15m. From here to around 25m the pellet rises slightly high until it loses momentum and drops back down to zero at 30m and then continues to fall until it runs out of steam.

By shooting paper targets on the range, it’s possible to work out where the pellet is at each stage of its journey and then to apply hold-over or hold-under to ensure that it hits the mark at whatever range. Unfortunately for the brancher shooter, the effect of gravity on a slowing pellet can be very different when shots are taken at a steep upward angle. By and large, the drag on the pellet is greater and the point of impact is consequently lowered more quickly. However, when shooting straight up, the pellet will rise over the line of sight in the usual way — but because gravity is pulling from behind the pellet’s flightpath rather than beneath it, it won’t drop back down to the zero you dialled in on the range.

These very basic fundamental rules vary with shifting angles and the only way really to master it is to get out and shoot targets at exaggerated angles. Tall trees with rotten upper branches offer suitable practice targets. A laser rangefinder will help you to gain a better understanding of where the pellet strikes at different ranges and varying angles. Work it out in practice, then ping the range from your shooting position to the rookery trees, and you should be able to calculate accurately where you need to aim in order to bag your branchers.