In my old hamlet when I was a child we had three rookeries, two large ones in our huge elm trees and a smaller, more recently established one. The two large ones were home to around 80 to 100 nests each; they were alive with birds from late January until mid May, with a cacophony of gregarious noise as first the birds gathered to select their mate and nest site, then scoured the surrounding farmlands for twigs to build their nest, then mated and laid their eggs and shortly after, in early April, nurtured and reared their young. The noise was a constant background to the work on the land until what we locally always knew as Rook Shooting Night.
This was 12 May. Those who had a shotgun in the settlement turned up and staked their position until a signal was given and all hell let loose. At the first shots the old birds rose high in the sky, cawing as they rose higher. The tasty young were the main target and most vulnerable but, up in those huge elm trees, some 90 to 110 feet high, if they hid in their nests they remained safe while those who flew took their chance. Under the elms, children and village folk searched and gathered up the dead birds as the main ingredient of rook pie, put them in bags and boxes and carried them home. These pies were a delicacy and a great source of good meat in times of shortage.
Those young birds who avoided the guns, and there were many, then spent the next weeks growing in guile, size and strength as they searched the meadows for dung pats and insects and the fields for new-sown seeds of grain, peas or beans, where they again ran the risk of facing the farmer or gamekeeper’s gun.
Once they had reached maturity, the whole lot simply disappeared from the rookery. A mystery as to where, but locally the saying was that they had ‘gone on holiday’. But by the following new year they were back again, flying in big circles high over their roosts preparing for the next season.
I am telling this to people who may not know, but so far nothing I have related seems to make the species into a pest. Yet, by laws made by people who don’t know these birds, they, along with jackdaws, have been designated as vermin. Why?
In this part of Sussex they are becoming something of an endangered species. Why? Because herring gulls which used to live and breed near the sea have now moved inland and have developed a taste for young birds. These big predators sit on rooftops watching, and rearing their own young.
I first suspected this some three or four years back when our local rookery was a thriving 30-plus nest colony. I saw the commotion when the gulls flew overhead, although I didn’t see them attack the nests until last year.
This year there was no spring redecoration, no nest building, and instead of more than 30 nests we had three. There is no further building in the vicinity and the rooks are no longer here. Obviously, last year’s attacks have effectively cleaned out the total hatch from 2021 and the tradition has been broken. Now those three have been emptied.
In the past few weeks hunger has set in and the gulls have switched their attention to our large pond nearby where mallard have reared their broods. I have seen them diving onto the waters and on two occasions have seen a gull fly over my garden with still struggling ducklings in their huge beaks to their regular perches on a nearby roof. But what can one do?
Clearly the rooks are more part of our farmlands than protected seagulls? But because some emotionally immature folk, like the BBC’s Chris Packham, see only what they want to see, government so-called ‘experts’ have been persuaded to class rooks and jackdaws as vermin but protect herring gulls. The law on classing these birds as vermin is absurd. The fact that one needs to apply for a permit if wood pigeons, rooks or crows are attacking a crop is absurd. By the time you are given permission, the damage is done or the birds have moved on.
We no longer have the huge rookeries of 50 years ago, so there is no need to thin the birds out – and rook pie is no longer seen as a delicacy! And while they do cause limited damage, it is generally just that. Rooks are not, nor have they ever really been, vermin in the same league as magpies, crows and jays, but the instances of gull attacks on other bird species calls for a very urgent review of our shooting and vermin laws or we won’t have many of our old species left. Doubtless farmers will then be blamed.
As a start I suggest there is a list of conservationists who should be added to the vermin list with great urgency, while country people, who generally well know what needs to be done about pests, are given a freer hand to kill the real culprits.