Would you be tempted by four-and-twenty black birds in a pie? David Pilkington heads out rook shooting, once a traditional part of the country calendar
It was once a traditional part of the country calendar, but organised rook shooting has fallen from favour – and rook pie is even rarer. David Pilkington heads out with a .22 air rifle and, should times become desperate, a semi-automatic 12-bore, to find out if rook shooting is all nostalgia deems.
You can only count yourself a true countryman when you have braved black birds baked in a pie – be it the full four-and-twenty or not. Try The Arundell Arms’ rook pie recipe, once a classic supper in the country kitchen.
Whenever conversation with older country folk turns to the rook, there is always much nostalgic talk of rook pie. I got the gist of this many years ago: young rooks, referred to as “branchers” as they hop around on the branches, were shot in the vicinity of the nest and a pie was made from the breast meat. It is also widely held that the “four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie”, of nursery rhyme fame, actually applied to “black birds”, presumably young rooks rather than our popular garden songster.
Many older Devon people I know would wax lyrical about rook pie and organised rook shooting used to be a traditional part of the country calendar. About 20 years ago, when my son, Craig, was 12, I decided to see what it was all about. One fine early May morning I parked the boy under a rookery with his air rifle and left him there while I wandered the rest of the farm with the shotgun, potting at rabbits and squirrels. When I returned an hour or so later, the lad was wearing a satisfied grin and had a pile of dead rooks beside him.
Some of these were made into a pie by our chefs here at the Arundell Arms, which, I have to say, despite their culinary skills, was not appetising. The remainder had a rather different (unintended) fate. The landlord of my local had heard of my plans and asked for some rooks for old Owen, who had expressed much interest at the prospect of getting the meat for his own pie. We dropped a whole bunch of the rooks at the pub and had to have a pint with the landlord, who just happened to be celebrating his 50th birthday. Not having to drive anywhere, he was already well lubricated, despite the earliness of the hour. It is not hard to imagine what state he was in by closing time, at which point the rooks had been forgotten and the landlord’s spaniel, finding them on his late night walk, had distributed them around the pub garden.
ROOK SHOOTING: A SECOND ATTEMPT
After this rather inconclusive rook hunt, we decided on a second attempt at rook shooting. Perceived wisdom is that the shooting has to take place before the young rooks have fully left the rookery, not only for the pragmatic reasoning that they will stay around to be shot but that their diet will change and render the meat less palatable. Thus, a party of focused killers ventured into the rookery on 11 May, this being considered prime time for rook shooting. We had delayed by a day or two due to gales, which kept the treetops and their occupants swaying unshootably. This possibly led to some young rooks being up and away, and also meant that the burgeoning leaves hampered our view.
We were armed with .22 air rifles and a semi-automatic 12-bore in case of desperation. Rook shooting of old was done with a specific firearm, a rook rifle. These were developed in the late 1800s as Victorian gunsmithing rose to great heights and various types of breech-loaders appeared. Many of the famous gunmakers produced these weapons and there are still some lovely little rifles to be found, made by the greats such as Holland & Holland, Westley Richards and WW Greener. Calibres ranged from .22 up to a whopping .360, most commonly around .300. They had a heavy, hexagonal barrel and were often later converted into .410 shotguns or sleeved to make smaller calibres. The most popular action was the classic Martini Henry, as seen in the perennial Christmas television showing of Zulu.
They fired a low-velocity bullet, typically around 1,200fps to 1,500fps – all the better for not destroying the meat and, presumably, just slightly less dangerous for the neighbours. We found the .22 air rifle, in the hands of our top gun, Alex Inman, to be just the job, although I could not resist the temptation to have one shot with the 12-bore. It was more testing shooting than one might imagine, due to a wind moving the treetops and the new growth of leaves often obscuring the target. One may ask how it is that only the young, edible rooks are selected. Well, the rooks sorted this out for us pretty smartly, the adults rising in a great clamour as we appeared, flying around above the wood and making a terrible din, leaving their offspring to their fate.
ROOK SHOOTING: PIES AND FLIES
With a pile of young rooks duly shot and collected, we passed them over to our chefs at the Arundell Arms. Breakfast chef Francis Denford, who is a maestro with all game, showed us a neat way of preparing the birds by removing the wishbone prior to cutting the meat from the breastbone, to avoid waste. Sous chef Chris Heaver produced a tasty-looking pie but there my enthusiasm ended. It has to be said, I did not find rook palatable. Denford, who has eaten most things, had warned me in advance and suggested a large measure of good brandy afterwards. I reckon that in the days of our forefathers, times were hard for simple country folk and any meat or protein was just too good to be passed by.
All is not lost for rooking shooting thought as there is a practical use for the wing feathers – as body material for fly dressing. The great emergence of rooks from the nest coincides with the hatch of black gnats on our rivers and I put together a neat little fly that now catches me a lot of trout when these tiny flies are swarming over the stickles in the May sunshine.
The Crooked Rook
Thread: black 8/0, waxed
Hook: size 12 fine-wire dry-fly hook
Hackles: black cock hackle
Ribbing: black tying thread, fairly thick
Body: fibres from secondary of a
Wing: white polypropylene yarn
Grip the hook in two sets of artery forceps and bend the shank downwards in the middle to an angle of around 30 degrees. Tie in the thread just behind the eye, wind to the bend and tie in a small black cock hackle. Wind this at the bend of the hook. Tie in a length of thickish black thread for the rib and wind tying thread to the kink. There, tie in the rook fibres by the tips, a slip 1⁄4in wide rolled or folded into one bunch, and wind this back to the bend. Tie it in with the thick black thread and wind as a rib to the kink, leaving the rib trailing. Wind the tying thread to just behind the eye and tie in another bunch of rook fibres, this time by the butts, and wind them backwards to the kink. Tie them in and rib with the thick thread. Tie in a small bunch of white polypropylene yarn (a quarter of the thickness as it comes off the card) as a short wing sloping back over the body, then complete the fly by tying in and winding another short black cock hackle behind the eye. Whip finish and varnish head.
This fly represents a pair of mating gnats, joined at their back ends as they float down the stream. It lies on its side, with the white wing giving a pinpoint of visibility. I think the trout specifically select the mating gnats as they get two for the price of one, a piscatorial bogof.