About the project

Merlin breed on grouse moors, where many gamekeepers and landowners proudly host them, and raptor workers enthusiastically search for and monitor them. There can be disagreement about their status and the reasons for their decline. Gamekeepers believe that their management for grouse helps to support merlin and other ground-nesting birds, whilst raptor workers often believe that heather burning for grouse reduces merlin nesting habitat and prey abundance.

The Merlin Magic project aims to help reconcile opinions by promoting co-operative working between gamekeepers and raptor workers to help locate nests, then ring and tag chicks under licence. Scientists will measure the abundance of avian prey as well as vegetation at nests and within breeding territories, to learn more about nesting and breeding habitat requirements for merlin. This evidence will be used to guide landscape-scale management for moorland habitats to benefit merlin, other ground-nesting birds, and improve habitat condition.

As well as conducting field research to collect vital data, the project aims to produce a suite of resources to help people learn about merlin and moorland conservation issues and provide evidence-based information to inform conservation policy. The project hopes to bring the public closer to these fantastic creatures through streaming nest footage, writing fieldwork blogs, and providing regular updates.

By doing so the project will communicate best-practice strategies for effective merlin conservation directly to the grouse practitioners and upland ecologists working in these areas, as well as promoting public awareness of moorland conservation issues and laying the foundations for further grouse-raptor reconciliation projects.

Why is the project happening now?

In 2015, merlin were returned to the UK Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern as their recovery from a historical decline had faltered. The last national survey of merlin in 2008 estimated that there were 1,162 pairs in Britain, 301 of which were found in England. Comparisons with data from 1993/4 suggest that overall, the population is stable but with some marked local declines, particularly in the south-west where pairs declined by 83% and in northern England, with reported declines of 69% in Northumbria and 47% in both the North York Moors and South Pennines.

In the late 20th century, the UK population of merlin crashed due to the use of organochlorine pesticides, which caused merlin numbers to quickly plummet through the 1950s to just 550 pairs by 1960. The species is now red-listed, legally protected, and a long-term conservation concern in the UK – but its recovery has been slow. Merlin are still the most heavily contaminated species of raptor in the UK, as well as being threatened by habitat loss and disturbance. The decline of breeding merlin has also been linked to habitat loss, with favoured moorland habitats lost as they have been planted with commercial forestry or converted to grass moor through overgrazing by sheep. More recently, the intensification of heather management through rotational strip-burning or cutting on remaining moorland, especially that managed for driven red grouse shooting, may have reduced the availability of tall heather for nesting and the numbers of small moorland birds such as meadow pipits and skylarks which are key prey.

The Merlin Magic project follows recent GWCT success at Langholm Moor in south-west Scotland where the Trust achieved the restoration of numbers and breeding success of both merlin and hen harrier within 10 years, working with moorland managers, Raptor Study Groups, and statutory bodies. In 2020, GWCT staff volunteered time to help monitor breeding merlin and ring nearly 50 chicks within the Yorkshire Dales National Park. This provided the Trust with lots of opportunities to speak to moorland managers about merlin conservation and learn more about their concerns regarding recent population declines and associated likely causes. The Merlin Magic project is the next step in this work, rolling out knowledge gained from Langholm Moor and the Yorkshire Dales to help deliver success for ground-nesting raptors in uplands across regions of northern England.

Working relationships between grouse managers and raptor workers can be further developed through a collective approach involving merlin, a flagship species on grouse moors. In future, lessons learned for merlin may help in other projects for species such as hen harriers, a more controversial species where tensions are greater.

GWCT Uplands Newsletter



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