The history of the Trust is a fascinating tale, and one that cannot be told without referring to the people who have made us who we are today.
Founders Reg, Hilary and Ashley Smith laid the foundations for our Trust family to grow and, with the help of many staff, volunteers, members, supporters and visitors, the Trust has grown into a place we hope you love as much as we do. Below we have shared with you insights to some members of our team so that you can discover more about what inspires them each day.
Andy Hinton our Head of Development
“I first came to the Trust for a twelve week work experience placement that I needed to complete as part of my studies. I’d previously built new aviaries for the three birds of prey at college so a lecturer suggested I try the Trust. I visited before my interview and my wife asked me if I could see myself ever doing a commentary; I went on to do them for over 10 years!
I don’t ever imagine a time when I will stop loving watching wildlife: whether it’s seeing the first swallow or swift of the year, watching a wild Barn owl quartering or a vulture soaring, I get the same feeling, one of awe.
Though I love all wildlife, an early memory of a bird of prey was when I saw a Golden Eagle where I lived in the Highlands many years ago. I couldn’t stop talking about it, what a sight, truly stunning! Nobody believed I’d seen it either!
For me, what sets the Trust apart from other places is that I get to work somewhere that actually contributes to the conservation of birds of prey. That’s very important me.
I’ve worked at the Trust since 1997 so there are far too many highlights of my time here to mention just a few. One of my favourite aspects of my job though is releasing the Bald Eagles to fly across the valley in our afternoon display. Danebury and I go way back!”
Jane Robertson our Registrar, member of our Bird Team and also the Coordinator for the African White-backed Vulture EEP
“I first came to the Trust early in 1994 with my then boyfriend, who was in the army. We loved it so much that we joined as members straight away and, when he was posted abroad later that year, I decided to start volunteering.
Recovering from back surgery in 1997, I realised that you only get one life and after having worked as a volunteer at the Trust for four years at that time, I knew I wanted to work with animals, ideally birds of prey. I decided to go back to college to gain my National Diploma in Animal Care. Ashley wrote a lovely reference for my college application, but warned me that jobs didn’t come up at the Trust very often. However, I was lucky that as part of my work experience I did more volunteering at the Trust and managed to convince Ashley to employ me. It was volunteering that turned my love of raptors into an obsession, Ashley who inspired me and my back op was the catalyst to pursue my dream. Working with a great team of people and birds and the thought that I am giving a little back to nature is what has kept me at the Trust ever since then!
I have so many highlights from my time here that I have lost count, though there are a few that really stand out. The first time Fraggle the White-bellied Sea-Eagle stooped in to land on my fist and releasing Danebury the Bald Eagle for the first time were both incredible. The first bird I trained (Galaxy our Spectacled Owl) and the last (Fawkes our Wahlberg’s Eagle) are both highlights! Rearing baby raptors is always special.”
Ryan Stephens, member of our Bird Team, Work Experience Coordinator, resident biggest owl fan and donkey-whisperer
“I have always wanted to have a job where I can do something to help animals of any shape or size. I wanted to spend my time trying to give as much as I could to the welfare and wellbeing of animals.
I remember going to the Highland Wildlife Park in Scotland when I was very young and learning about indigenous animals in my favourite place. I remember watching the keepers, knowing that that was exactly the career I wanted. I especially remember learning about Scottish wildcats; that memory stuck with me for some reason.
My first memory of the Trust was attending Thruxton village fete when I was young, and looking up and seeing a Bald Eagle flying over. I now know that this was Cheyenne as I can remember what the eagle looked like even all that time ago (Danebury was probably in a river somewhere anyway). But I vividly remember that day. I fell in love with the Trust when I came on work experience 11 years ago. I loved the place and I wanted to keep that feeling I got when I arrived on my first day. It is still what motivates me today.
I have a number of highlights in my time working at the Trust. I’ve been fortunate to go to South Africa twice as part of the Trust’s International Vulture Programme work. I was thrilled to be asked to looked after our Miniature Donkeys, Mickey and Molly, and this remains one of my absolute favourite parts of the job. Another great highlight for me was that I was the first person for whom Satara our White-headed Vulture flew a circuit for. Any moment with Danebury is fantastic too!”
Mike Riley, a lead member of our Bird Team
“My earliest recollections of wildlife and birds of prey are back when I was about 5 or 6 and family summer holidays nearly always took place on the Isle of Wight. My Dad has always been into wildlife and I can remember running around the Culver Downs which overlooks Duver on one side and Sandown on the other, catching butterflies with my Dad and then sitting on the cliff paths watching kestrels as they hovered in the wind hunting.
I always wanted to work with animals from a young age but sadly the opportunities back then were very limited. l remember being told at college that they could offer me beef or dairy farming if I wanted to work with animals. Oh, how times have changed!
What inspires me at work is the passion we all share for working with these amazing creatures and getting to meet wonderful people through our doors.
My earliest memories of The Trust were when I was much younger and back then there were different animals here. I can always remember a fox that use to curl up in a hollow log in his enclosure but there were always flying displays of some sort going in as well. I was lucky enough to join the team after I came to the Trust to do work experience like many of the other staff around that time.
There are many things that I could list as highlights of the job but I do really love running the incubation side of things and getting to see the eggs develop and hopefully eventually hatch. Of course, releasing the eagles over the valley with Andy is always a favourite activity. Getting to meet Lloyd and Rose Buck and getting to work with them on a number of occasions and becoming friends has been fantastic.
I’ve had many favourite birds too over the 23 years I’ve worked here: Macawber who was a Eurasian Griffon, Kipling and of course Cassius, I’ve always loved training the big vultures!”
Ben Cox, Bird Team
“The first memory I have of the Trust is visiting when I was 10 years old. I loved running round and completing the stamp book and before long I knew where they all were. I also have fond memories of watching the flying demonstrations with birds like Madeleine and Frodo. The fact that I have since been able to work with those birds just blows my mind.
I always loved animals, however once I visited the Trust I knew that birds of prey were the animals I wanted to work with and specialise in. I think what motivates me are the birds that I work with, the sensational people that I work with and the visitors I get to meet. I love to talk about what I love and my passion which is birds of prey.
Every day, I’m doing something I love. It’s all I dreamt of doing since I was 10 years old. If you had told me at that age what I would be doing now, I would have laughed at you and said no way! But the facts are I’m literally living my dream and loving life.
The biggest highlight of my career so far has to be hands down, without a doubt going to Africa! That was another one of my dreams and to be able to have gone so young I truly feel blessed! Another highlight would be doing my first ever commentary – it was the Woodland Owls display and I had such a sense of achievement after doing it, and now it is one of my favourite parts of the job. One final highlight would be calling Cheyenne in for the first time over the hill! She is such a respected bird here by not just our visitors but by all members of the Bird Team, so to have worked with her was just epic!”
Tom Morath, Fundraising Events Manager and Bird Team
“Nature is my inspiration, because it is just so big. There’s so much to see and more to learn than any of us could ever know. Wherever we are in the world, we’re surrounded by nature in one form or another. It was here long before we were around to study it and it’ll still be here long after we humans have had our time. Its ancient history and yet innovating and evolving all at once. How could anyone not be inspired?
At the age of 12, I did a bird of prey experience and that really started the ball rolling with my love for birds. I first remember visiting the Trust aged around 13 with the falconers’ club I was part of. I can remember sitting at the Valley of the Eagles display, listening to Ashley commentating and the music playing whilst watching the Black Kites high above the stand. I think I was absolutely awestruck by how beautiful this was. I’d never seen a display where the birds were flown so naturally or one that could inspire such awe inspiring connection with them, no matter who you were in that audience. Now I get to see that every day and the feeling is more or less the same!
When I started volunteering (at a different collection) I knew I wanted to spend as much time around birds as I could but it wasn’t until my mentor at the time suggested a job to me that I realised it was even a possibility. I was probably about 17 at this time. Since then I have tried to do other things, I went to university to train to be a teacher, but the birds have always called me back to them.
The ethos of the Trust is just irresistible. I felt it when I was a visitor and I feel it now. Primarily that the birds come first in all that we do and the idea that we need to learn as much as we can about these amazing animals and share that learning if we are to achieve our mission. I remember on my first visit to the Trust reading a quote on the back of the visitors guidebook and I’ve never forgotten it – “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.” ― Baba Dioum. Couple that with getting to work with some awesome birds and people, develop new events and displays and I’ve pretty much got the best job in the world. There’s no better motivation!
I’ve been lucky to have many highlights in my career and since I’ve been at the Trust. My first time working with a vulture called Bentley, inspired my love for them. Hand-rearing my first bird, Sage the Tawny Owl, who is still with me now nearly 10 years later. Hand-rearing a Raven (who made a mess of my Mum’s sitting room – I have VERY understanding parents!). Going to South Africa to monitor African White-Backed Vultures. Talking and commentating about Barn Owls alongside Chris Packham at the Top Birds event. During my time at Muncaster Castle, watching Herriot the Steppe Eagle learning the ropes of soaring and eventually becoming the best bird I’ve ever seen fly, coming into the arena off of the wind some 500ft or move above us over the Valley – that is special. I’m very lucky to have so many more memories like these to treasure.”
Gary Benton, Head of Living Collection
“The natural world has always fascinated me. I grew up in the countryside and have always had animals around me and admired wildlife and the complexities of nature. Life would be pretty boring without wildlife and I have been reminded of that when visiting parts of the world where wildlife is really struggling or even barely existent for many reasons. One of my favourite things about wildlife is being able to see some of the rarest sights that are not part of everyday life: Hobby’s in the summer; White-tailed Eagles pushed off course and above the Trust; stoat or weasel encounters; or disturbing a Muntjac Deer when you are out walking. These are all really cool to witness. We are very lucky to live near a breeding pair of Peregrine Falcons and often see food passing from parents to juveniles over our garden in the summer. Moments like that are what I love. The sounds of wildlife are pretty amazing too, my favourite is listening to swifts call as the light starts to fade in the evening.
My first bird was a male Harris’ Hawk called Casper who I just loved and trained him for falconry under the direction of my dad who is a falconer. I was around 12 when I got him and was lucky enough to grow up around birds of prey as we had various species at home. It started as a hobby and quickly became something that I wanted to do for a profession.
My first memory of the Trust was visiting as a child (probably around 10 years old) with one of my school friends and his family. I don’t remember much of the day but I do remember Reg Smith talking to us about the birds and weirdly remember the ferret pit, which at the time was a pretty cool setup and I was into ferrets having kept them at home! Interestingly, the ferret pit still exists today but not in that form. It has been converted into an aviary and is now home to Scout, our Eurasian Kestrel.
After completing a twelve week work placement at the Trust when I was 17, I continued to volunteer whenever I could before eventually being offered a paid position. Over two decades on, the Trust has changed in many ways but I am still motivated by the same things that brought me here which are that I love working with birds and love what the Trust stands for in the conservation world.
In my time at the Trust, I have far too many highlights to list. However, there are a few things that jump to mind: going to Africa and working with vultures; travelling around as part of our consulting work; training and working with some really cool species over the years; and more recently working with Boe our Egyptian Vulture who is such a natural flyer and I get a lot of enjoyment watching her fly. I have seen many changes over the years and worked with some really cool people and animals.”