Following on from a successful breeding season, we speak to Jack Ashton-Booth and Tom Grose, our newest Assistant Investigations Officers, investigating hen harrier persecution in England and Wales. Here we get to know them and their work a bit better…
You’re both keen birders. What’s been your best ever birding moment?
Jack: My highlight was in October 2013 witnessing 299 rough-legged buzzards migrating out to sea in southern Demark!
Tom: So many to choose from! Watching a pair of shoebills in Uganda’s Murchison Falls NP as a teenager was like something from a dream… the birds and the setting along the north bank of the Nile were very special.
What do you do when you’re not working?
Jack: Self-confessed raptor geek – read, write, illustrate and watch raptors. If I’m not birding or ringing then I love to climb and keep fit.
Tell us something else we might not know about you…
Tom: By the time you read this, I will have become a father.
How do you describe your job to friends and family?
Tom: I say that we are trying to help one of England’s most threatened birds of prey and explain the persecution these birds face (which generally elicits a shocked response). When I talk about investigations work I usually get called a bird detective.
Jack I try to steer clear of the details and essentially say I have the best job in the world, get to study hen harriers on a near daily basis. Non- birders don’t have a clue what I’m talking about but birders are somewhat mesmerised!
(Jack Ashton-Booth with a young hen harrier)
Without giving away too many secrets, what does your work involve?
Tom: Lots of driving and walking the moors! We aim to find and monitor nesting attempts and, if these are successful, satellite tag the chicks. This results in some spectacular encounters with hen harriers. We can then track these birds’ movements, and if they don’t survive hopefully find out where and why this has happened. We also proactively attempt to stop persecution and ensure that those responsible are held to account.
The EU funded Hen Harrier LIFE project itself focuses on monitoring harriers both on the ground and via satellite tagging. It also includes protecting nests and investigations work pertaining to persecution incidents alongside community engagement and raising awareness of the issues that threaten hen harriers.
Why did you apply for the role?
Jack: I was driven by my passion for raptors and the opportunity to directly make a difference to hen harrier conservation in the UK. I’m hoping to further my understanding of this captivating species.
Tom: I live on the edge of the Peak District, a black spot for raptor persecution, and I’ve witnessed first-hand the effects this has had on individual birds and their populations. This role presented one of the best opportunities to make a difference to that, locally and nationally.
You’ve been in the role several months now. Is it living up to expectations?
Jack: Above and beyond – don’t be fooled, it’s not for the faint hearted and it’s not simply sitting on a hill watching harriers sky dancing (although some days are). It involves LONG hours in the field and can at times feel like you’re swimming against the tide. It’s most definitely a job with the greatest highs and the greatest lows.
Tom: It has exceeded them. I feel incredibly privileged to be part of the team. There have been some real highs and lows but I’ve never been happier in my work. Successfully fitting satellite tags to several broods of chicks was very satisfying after lots of hard work and lots of nervous moments along the way.
Can you tell us more about the help you receive from local raptor workers?
Tom: Quite simply we couldn’t do our job without them. They are the real unsung heroes of raptor conservation. Their years of experience and time spent in the field are vital, especially as we are only a small team. I’d like to extend a huge thankyou to those I’ve worked with this year, particularly the members of the Northern England Raptor Forum. You know who you are!
Jack: The people I liaise with are incredible and know their raptors inside out. What I would love to see however is the old school cliques in the raptor working circles start to open up and allow new blood up the ranks. I know so many amazing young birders keen to learn about raptors and they should be encouraged by their elders. These areas are too big to simply work it alone, more eyes mean more raptors are found.
How do you liaise with the police and CPS?
Tom: As we have no statutory powers ourselves our relationship with these two bodies is vital. We are in regular contact with Wildlife Crime Officers, providing information to them and assisting where we can which helps with enforcement. When a case come to trial, our role is to provide evidence for the CPS to build a case and act as an expert witness.
Who else do you get help from?
Tom: We work in partnership with many organisations such as the Forestry Commission, National Trust, National Parks, Local Wildlife Trusts and raptor groups.
Jack: The forestry commission raptor workers have been amazing and monumental in teaching us tricks of the trade when finding hen harrier territories and nests.
What can the public do to help birds of prey?
Tom: Reporting possible crimes to police and hen harrier sightings to our hotline are both incredibly valuable – you are our eyes and ears. Local communities must make it clear that raptor persecution has no place in their countryside. In order for real change to happen the public as a whole needs to tell those in power that this barbaric practice must stop.
Jack: Question everything when in the countryside. If you see anything on a grouse moor that looks odd, like a spring trap or a cage, then take a photo and send it in to us. Also, report dead or injured birds of prey. The quicker you get info to us the quicker we can respond, and ultimately get a conviction if a crime has taken place.
(Tom Grose recovering a dead bird)
What’s the hardest part of the job?
Tom: The knowledge that many of the chicks we have watched grow won’t make it, not just through natural causes but by being shot or trapped by a selfish few.
Jack: For me the quantity of cases that get dropped by our legal system. If our legal system dictates that a crime has been committed, then it should be treated the same as any other crime and not brushed under the carpet because it is not perceived as a priority case.
You haven’t had your first winter out on the moors yet, are you prepared?!
Tom: In previous roles I’ve spent many winters out on the hills carrying out surveys and habitat restoration. But this time I’ll be doing it to protect hen harriers!
Jack: I can’t think of anything better than a flask of tea and a winter hen harrier roost! Bring it on!