We are fond of our small rookery at the end of the garden. There is comfort in their constant cawing, which rises to a crescendo at this time of year, and in the fact that these communal birds choose to raise their young and make their homes so close to ours. It would be a sad day were they to leave. Richard Jefferies wrote that There is something so semi-domestic about the rook that even those who believe themselves to suffer from his depredations hesitate to desire the extinction of the race. According to superstition, disaster befalls a household if the rooks up sticks and you are supposed to tell them if there is a death in the family. So why follow the centuries-old tradition of shooting the branchers as they sit in the trees not yet capable of flying?

The rooks’ symbiotic relationship with agriculture is ancient. It is unlikely that there were any in Britain before farming and, dependent on open habitats, they flourished in the wake of woodland clearance Britain and Ireland have about 40 per cent of Europe’s rooks. They have always been valued by farmers for their help with pest control, eating wireworms (click beetle larvae), which chew holes in the roots of crops, and leather jackets (daddy-long-legs larvae), which live in the soil and eat grass roots. They are, however, by no means always the farmer’s friend and can be shot under the terms of the general licence due to their capacity to guzzle grain crops. For this reason, rook control goes back a long way. There are records as far back as 1424 of legislation compelling landowners to prevent the young fledging on pain of having their rookery trees confiscated and, under Elizabeth I, boys received a halfpenny for three young rooks or rook eggs.

The case for control is stronger this year in our part of Devon where surrounding dairy farmers are increasingly growing their own cattle feed to combat the rise in cereal prices. Rooks can also be shot under the general licence to conserve wild birds. Though they are not such voracious songbird killers as some of their corvid cousins, they will occasionally take eggs and fledglings.

Shooting for the pot

Another benefit of our yearly shoot is that rooks make good eating. When we were younger, much to our friends’ amusement, our deep freeze contained a culinary creation by my brother Ed, labelled “Rook Pie: Serves Four”. Perhaps unsurprisingly it remained there for some time before we plucked up the courage to consume it. In the end it turned out to be delicious. Rook pie was a staple of the rural poor until the end of World War II. Its relatively strong taste means it works well in a mixed game pie, improving the richness of flavour.

The meat of the young birds is more tender than the adults. It’s only worth using the breasts, which are easily removed and a lighter colour than the dark red meat of the mature birds. A decent bag of branchers means you might want to freeze some of the breasts to use later in the year. We freeze them laid out separately on a baking tray and sandwiched between two sheets of cling film (to stop them drying out), rather than putting the whole lot into one bag where they stick together in a lump. Once they are frozen you can transfer them to a single container. This means when it comes to preparing a game pie you can add the desired number to the pot easily.

These days, when it comes to shooting rooks, there is some contention about the best tool for the job. When the annual rook shoot was at its height in the late 19th century it was often undertaken with specially made smoothbore rifles. In a 1963 article for Shooting Times, Petrel advocates a rifle in combination with a shotgun to make sure of fliers. This is a sign of the times these days, thanks to advances in air rifle technology they are more than adequate. In a recent piece Tony Jackson makes the case for the air rifle as the correct option and regards the 12-bore as hardly the firearm for the occasion. We use a combination of air rifle and shotgun. The air rifle is sufficient for branchers for which the 12-bore would be overkill but it is good to have the shotgun as backup for those that are fledged.

The window of opportunity for shooting branchers is small and the timing of their arrival inexact. It is a case of looking carefully for the young from the beginning of May. They are distinguished from the adults by being slightly smaller and rounder in body without the characteristic grey muzzle of the older bird. The biggest giveaway is that they don’t fly off the branch as soon as you come into view. After the first few appear they are then on stream for at least the next two weeks.

Lending a hand

This year we went out early before the traditional date of 12 May. After shooting our own copse we visited new neighbours, who recently moved to the village from the outskirts of London. We met them carol singing this Christmas when we chatted briefly about shooting and they have been asking us ever since to come and deal with the rooks in their garden. It was encouraging to find people coming from the town who were supporting country sports and getting involved in the life of the village. When we arrived we were shown piles of twigs and droppings under the holm oaks next to the house.

We were told in tones of mild despair about the rooks’ attempts to nest in the chimney and even under the bath when the builders had temporarily removed a drainpipe (though this was more likely to be one of the numerous jackdaws circling the house). We explained that though we could cull some, it would neither be practical nor desirable to destroy the entire clamour. We tried to highlight the benefits of having your own resident rooks, explaining that it was good luck and that they had probably been there for a long time many rookeries are centuries old and we assured our neighbour that noise and activity would decrease significantly by the summer.

Our neighbours’ daughters were down from London for the weekend and wanted to take up shooting. Their father had bought an air rifle and they were keen to shoot a brancher so, after they proved competent at a target, they had a go and were pleased to bag one each. This echoed the tradition of rook shooting in the Victorian era when it was popular sport for budding young Shots and young ladies wishing to improve their shooting skills. When we were young without access to other areas of the sport, the rooks were a good way of starting out fair game in our back yard.

Due to a late start, our day’s bag of 15 was considerably smaller than last year when in four days we shot 100 branchers in our copse alone. To celebrate the gathering of this wonderful wild free-range food, that evening we made and ate a delicious game pie including the freshly gathered rook breasts. Thus we observed the ancient custom described by Richard Jefferies. The genial supper in the evening, at which a pie is duly presented in which is dished up some of the birds that early in the morning were trying their young wings. 

For game and rook pie recipes, visit www.shootingtimes.co.uk or www.astray.com/recipes and search for Maureen’s Game Pie.