As our non-elected national leader presses on towards a future in which she forces legislation through using Henry VIII’s 500 year old form of government by proclamation - somehow not repealed in the half-millennium since - Early Modern Whale presents a sample of such legislation. It’s Henry VIII identifying in 1532 a set of enemies to the economy, certain black corvids, and without putting any state resources into the problem, forcing the nation to act, but doing all this without upsetting the interests of the landed.
Is there anything to admire here? Certainly not, if judged on the level of its lumbering and repetitious prose (or legalese). A possible source of state revenue has been glimpsed, and to encourage a gentle and pleasing cascade of pence to the treasury, a division of spoils is legislated in painstaking clumsy detail: half for the king, so much for the landowner, so much for the bird-catcher, and this much for those who inform on those who fail to heed the proclamation and endorse it with action.
The basic premise is probably flawed. The approximately 26,000 dovecotes on the estates of gentry landowners probably contained birds that were more of a threat to the corn and grain harvests [“No kingdom in the world has so many dove houses”), while rooks and crows are generally accepted by farmers as a positive in terms of the invertebrate pests they take from the fields. Birds Britannica notes the bucolic rhyme “One for the pigeon, one for the crow/ Two to rot, and one to grow” as embodying a certain resignation. Interesting about their depredations on thatched structures in the nesting season, though, and Birds Britannica does not note this emphasis (that great book does mention the legislation).
"For so much as innumerable number of rooks, crows & choughs do daily breed through this realm which yearly destroy a marvellous great quantity of corn and grain and that a marvellous destruction of the covertures of thatched houses / barns / ricks/ stakes and such like for remedy whereof it is enacted that every person occupying and manuring any lands or tenements shall do as much as in him reasonable is to destroy and kill all manner choughs / crows / or rooks haunting within their said lands upon pain of a grievous amercement to be assessed in form following, and if any offence be done contrary to this act by any person inhabited within the limits of the leets [a court meeting once a year], lawdays [a court meeting six-monthly], rapes [an administrative district of Sussex] or court barons [“The assembly of the freehold tenants of a manor under the presidency of the lord or his steward”], of any lords having such courts, that then upon a presentment made before the steward he with two of presenters to be named shall assess for every default presented such amercement as to them that shall seem reasonable and that to be to the use of the lord aforesaid to be levied by distress as other amercements for common annoyances presented in leets hath been accustomed to be levied. And if the offence be done by any which have the occupation of any such lands or tenements whereunto such leets, lawdays, rapes or courts belong, that then upon a presentment thereof had before the Sherriff in the towns the stewards in turn with two of the presenters to be chosen as it is aforesaid or the justice of peace or two of them at the least if the presentment be before them in their sessions shall assess the said amercement by their discretion to be levied to the use of the king by distress like as other amercements of common annoyances.
"And further it is enacted that every parish township hamlet borough or village wherein is the least [ten] households the inhabitants thereof shall before Michaelmas next coming and yearly [ten] years ensuing at their costs provide and make a net commonly called a net to take choughs, crows and rooks with all things belonging to the same and the same shall keep and renew as oft as shall need and with a shrape [a bait] made with chaff or other thing meet for that purpose shall lay at such time in the year and in such places as is convenient upon pain of forfeiture of [ten] shillings the one moitie to the king and the other moitie to the lords of the same courts, leets, lawdays or rapes to be levied of the foresaid inhabitants. And that every such net with all things requisite thereunto shall once a year at the least be presented in the court, before the steward to be viewed whether it be sufficiently repaired or not so that by the said steward and inhabitants a sure way and ordinance may be devised for the reparation, continuance and putting in execution of the said net at times and places convenient. And that such ordinance made by the said steward and inhabitants or by the most part of them for the said rooks, crows, and choughs shall stand good and effectual, and be put in due execution. And further be it enacted that as well all such persons [illegible] … shall … and have in his occupation any lands or tenements whereunto any such courts aforesaid appertain … the tenants and farmers inhabiting in them shall yearly during the said [ten] years at such times and places as by the steward shall be appointed assemble them self together to view and survey all the said lands and tenements where any of them shall inhabit and thereupon shall agree and conclude by what means it shall be possible to destroy all the young breed of choughs, rooks, and crows for that year and shall put the same in execution so that the said young breed may be utterly destroyed upon pain of forfeiture for every year omitting such assembly, endeavour and view making 20 shillings after presentment thereof had before the Justice of Peace the one half to the king and the other half to the presenters of the same offence to be levied by distress like as amercements for common annoyances have been accustomed to be levied. And be it further enacted that as well justices of peace in their sessions and Sheriffs in their turns [?] as stewards, mayors and bailiffs elected in their leets, lawdays, rapes and court barons shall give in charge to the inhabitants and all other appearing before them that they shall duly inquire and put into execution the effect of these premises so that this act may fully and truly be executed and the choughs, crows and rooks thereby destroyed in all places in this realm
And it is further enacted that it shall be lawful to every person minding to destroy the said crows / rooks / or choughs after request thereof made unto the owner or occupier of the same ground to enter take and carry away all such rooks, choughs and crows as he shall take in the same day in which such request shall be made without let or impediment of the said owner or occupier.
And it is further enacted that every farmer or owner having in his occupation any lands or tenements to the yearly value of £5 shall pay to every such person as take and offer him any old crows, rooks or choughs taken within the same ground 8 pence for every 12 old crows, rooks or choughs and every 6 [indecipherable] and for every 3 [an obulus]. And if he refuse to pay the said money to be levied by distress of the goods and cattles of every such farmer or occupier provided that no person by colour of this act take or kill any doves or pigeons upon pains limited by the laws and customs of this realm heretofore made for such offences an 24 Henrici 8 cap 10."
Such legislation against corvids was repeated by the Elizabethan parliament, and the Jacobean. “I never knew the execution of it”, said John Aubrey. But choughs were swept south westwards and finally out of the country. The habits of birds perhaps were altered: Birds Britannica notes without comment that Scottish and Irish rookeries tend to contain much larger aggregations of birds than English ones, but that could perhaps be related to local predilections for rook pie.
Wildfowl were a different matter for Henry VII and his compliant government. This was a matter of preserving birds for the landowner, who was required to practice his longbow skills in fowling for birds on his own land. Look at cranes, bustards and bitterns being protected:
"No person between the last day of May and the last day of August take any wildfowl with nets or other engine upon pain of a year’s prisonment and to forfeit for every fowl 4d the one half to the king the other to him that will sue for it by action of debt where no essoign protection nor wager of law to lie, and Justices of Peace to enquire thereof as they do in trespass.
"Provided that any gentleman or other that may dispend 40/- a year of freehold may take such wildfowl with their spaniels using none other engine but their long bow. And from the first day of march that shall be in the year of our Lord 1533 unto the last day of June then ensuing no person to destroy any eggs of wildfowl upon pain of imprisonment for one year and to lose for every cranes egg or bustard 20d, and for every bitterns egg, herons or shoveller, 1d the one half to the king the other to him that will sue therefore in form aforesaid and justices of peace have power to inquire and determine the same in form aforesaid.
Provided that this act extend not to any that destroy choughs, ravens, or bustards or any fowl not used to be eaten or their eggs. An 25 H8 cap 11."