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Merlins thriving on North Pennine grouse moors

Conservationists have hailed the success of a rare bird of prey which is bucking the national trend in County Durham, as was reported in the Darlington & Stockton Times.

The North Pennines support a nationally significant population of merlin, with an average of 35 to 40 nesting pairs across the moors of County Durham alone.

The nation's smallest bird of prey, the merlin is typically only 28cm in length and has an average weight of just 230g for the female, which is larger than the male.

One of those celebrating the region's healthy population of merlin, which is bucking the trend of decline in many other parts of the country, is Emily Graham of the Northern Pennines Moorland Group, where nests are being monitored as part of ongoing survey work.

She said: “We are absolutely delighted to have ringed nine chicks from two nests this spring on one moor alone. It seems there are more merlin in this region than perhaps originally thought and it is wonderful to see them nesting successfully.

“Grouse moors offer the right balance of long and short heather to provide areas to nest in and take shelter, with fewer predators. We will always share data with other bodies to assist long-term monitoring and conservation work. We hope to encourage even more insects too, which will boost the number of small birds such as meadow pipits, skylarks and wheatears that form the major part of the merlin’s diet.”

David Raw, a British Trust for Ornithology licensed bird ringer and member of the Durham Upland Bird Study Group, has been monitoring merlin for over 30 years.

He said: “County Durham has one of the largest study populations of merlin of any region in the UK, with a population that has remained stable over the long-term.

“Merlin nest among the heather of the moors in the uplands, with generally good breeding success in the spring, although possible poor winter survival rates deserve further study.”

After fledging on moorland, young merlin head to the lowlands and coastal plains, following their main prey – meadow pipits.

The birds are too small to carry the weight of a satellite tag, so conservationists and landowners are reliant on nest observation, or on members of the public alerting them when they find a ring, or a ringed dead bird.

Mr Raw added: “From the recovered rings we collect data on the birds’ lifespan, movements and cause of death – sometimes they have accidentally flown into window panes or car windscreens and sometimes they appear to have died of starvation. Young merlin leave their parents’ care about two to three weeks after fledging so the inexperienced birds often do not find enough food to survive their first winter.”

Merlin are a red-listed species, meaning they are "of most conservation concern" and there are estimated to be just 1,100 pairs in the UK. They are particularly vulnerable to predators as they nest on the ground.


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