Study shows merlin thrive in some habitats

They are Britain’s smallest bird of prey but there is some good news for the species with breeding of merlin increasing on grouse moors over the last 20 years.

The Moorland Association (MA) says the birds are breeding well on heather moorland managed by gamekeepers for wild red grouse, however the figures show the picture is not as rosy in other upland areas where the birds of prey are found. A recent independent study for the association found there were four times more breeding records for merlin on the managed landscapes than moorland without keepers.

Peak District head keeper, Fred Mitchinson has been working with licensed bird ringers and recording numbers for over twenty years and said the findings were very encouraging.

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Breeding records appear to have doubled on grouse moors in the last 20 years - however the same figures revealed a fall of more than half in other upland areas.

Mr Mitchinson explained: “I take great pride in knowing I have had a direct impact on the success of these wonderful little falcons.

“Most years we have three pairs, returning to the same quieter areas of our moor.

“As ground nesters, they are very susceptible, not just to disturbance from dogs and walkers, but also predators such as stoats and foxes, who see them as food. Once located, we closely monitor a nest and when the time is right, ring the young.”

The association has recently taken rare pictures of merlin chicks from a brood of three females and a male.

Mr Mitchinson said ringing was carefully regulated, with licences issued by Natural England and permits obtained from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).

“There would be many more merlin; the problem is they don’t mix with people and especially dogs,” he added

“When moorland has easy access for visitors, there are always going to be significant impacts.

“Where land is carefully managed and protected, risks are lessened and I wasn’t surprised by the study showing my profession is making a real difference to the survival of these special ‘little peregrines’.”

Amanda Anderson, Moorland Association director said yesterday merlin could be found in a number of places in the region including the Yorkshire Dales, North York Moors and the Peak District.

She said she believed merlin thrived when there was a heather moorland habitat, when they were living in quieter places and where there was predator control.

“More pest control in areas where they are struggling could be good,” she said.

But Mrs Anderson added: “The difficulty there is how do you fund it?”

Consultant ecologists, Penny Anderson Associations highlighted significant merlin increases on heather moorland managed by gamekeepers, using BTO Atlas data.

Moorland Association members manage over 860,000 acres of heather moorland, rarer than rainforest.

Chairman, Robert Benson, said last night the gains on grouse moors were important and had helped keep merlin off the Red List of endangered species.

He added: “These lovely birds of prey with square-cut tails and pointed wings are doing well on our land.

“The valuable study recognised the considerable work of gamekeepers and now these pictures of thriving chicks are added testimony to their contribution to the moorland and its wildlife.”