A Eulogy to the Rook

I’m suffering from Rookitus – a developing and utterly uncontrollable passion for Rooks.  In this I am not alone: ornithologist and nature writer Mark Cocker has written an entire book on the subject (Crow Country, 2008), perusal of which may convert even the deepest of sceptics.  Indeed, there seems to be quite a Rook Fan Club out there, only individual members don’t yet realise it exists and that they belong to it.  But we can go further than merely establish a fan club, which is easily done these days through social media (a Rook Blog would be an obvious starting point).

Rooks in early spring are one of the nation’s top Wildlife Wows!, and not just in rookeries, for their antics in the open fields and elsewhere are also quite amazing at that time.  We don’t properly realise their wonder then because we are too obsessed with rare and declining species, and under-value the more commonplace – until it starts to vanish.  The goal is quite simple, we need to develop Rook Tourism as part of the rural diversification programme, and raise the profile of this under-rated and much vilified bird within our culture, and establish the Rook as a recognised cultural icon, alongside the Nightingale and Skylark.

It was an early March trip to Salisbury Plain than finally made me see the light.  The 300 square miles of the Plain is one massive rook empire.  Never mind the scientific word metapopulation, this is a veritable empire.  Rookeries are frequent, almost commonplace in the river valleys that divide up and surround the Plain, especially around settlements.  Watching and listening to nest building in such places is a major experience, intellectually and spiritually.  Rooks reach the parts other birds don’t reach, through their uniqueness.  Consequently, I ignored the Goosander that flew past over the River Wylye near Steeple Langford, and several Little Egrets. 

Moving up to the Plain itself, Rooks abounded over the vast cornfield wastes, or ploughlands as they used to be called.  These arable expanses are nothing new, WH Hudson in his eulogy to old Salisbury Plain A Shepherd’s Life (1921) writes of a ‘desolate scene’, for ‘the land was all ploughed and stretched away before me, an endless succession of vast grey fields, divided by wire fences.’  Since his day the fields have expanded and intensified, and the arable weeds and wire fences have vanished.  But ask any Rook and they will tell you this is a feeding paradise.  Even better for them are the huge open air pig farms that are scattered about on the Plain.  There’s a particularly good one just off the B road just west of Shrewton.  Between Chitterne and Tilshead I ignored an ethereal of larks and my first Corn Bunting since last May – both outgunned by Rooks, and on Salisbury Plain’s artillery ranges to boot.

Above all, Rooks are an integral part of the immense sense of spirit of place that pervades throughout the 300 square miles of Salisbury Plain.  The Plain is a brooding place, with its own climate and frequent, sudden and often extremely loud military reverberations.  At times it threatens to produce mirages, like the great plains of Hungary and beyond.  WH Hudson, again in A Shepherd’s Life, records an intense feeling of ‘emptiness and desolation, which frightens the stranger’.  Edward Thomas, in In Pursuit of Spring (1914) goes further, describing The Plain as a ‘sublime inhospitable wilderness’ that is haunted by Rooks.  Thomas goes deeper still: ‘It makes us feel the age of the earth, the greatness of Time, Space and Nature.’  The Plain offers the modern naturalist a feeling of overwhelming loss, for it is our sole surviving tract of deep soil downland.  Elsewhere only steep slope downland and the odd isolated fragment survived the ravages of the 20th century agricultural revolution.     

But one beneficial change that has occurred within modern agriculture is that Rooks are no longer mercilessly shot.  As a child in west Somerset I was horrified, even frightened by the sight of Rook carcasses bedraggled on barbed wire fences, like platoons of troops hanging on barbed wire after the first day of the Somme battle, and by rotting rags of black feathers dangling like hanged men from farm string attached to poles angled into the ground.  This may have much to do with the cost of modern cartridges and the banning of cheap homemade versions, as with the recognition that Rooks do more good than harm, devouring the likes of the dreaded eelworm.  But it is nonetheless welcome. 

My own village rookery, a paltry affair when compared to the majesty on offer around Salisbury Plain, seems to be having a bumper year.  The apparently-rich banker who periodically blasted them out, perhaps mistaking them for pigeons, moved out of the ostentatious house he tenanted in a hurry, leaving behind unpaid bills, and the rookery is once again at peace behind the corrugated iron village chapel.  Last year the rookery contained 18 nests, this year the tally is currently 23, not out.  Rooks pervade.  It is time we recognised that.

One personal challenge is to help the National Trust to recognise its major rookeries and Rook and Jackdaw communal roostings, and develop them – sensitively – as visitor experience attractions.  The Trust knows where nearly all its rare species and habitats are, having vast data bases on these, but scarcely knows where its wider Wildlife Wows! can be experienced.  Sure enough, one can look down into rookeries from the keep of Tatton Castle and from the ridge of Crook Peak in the Mendips, and there are seriously profound rookeries at The Weir, a garden on the banks of the Herefordshire Wye, and at Attingham Park near Shrewsbury.  Also, the rookery at Acorn Bank purports to be the largest in Cumbria.  But we need to know where our most atmospheric rookeries are, for rookeries are often deeply atmospheric.  The one by Malham Tarn in the Yorkshire Dales may take some beating here.  It is time we valued Rooks.