Merlin population in decline on Lammermuir grouse moors

british-birds-march-2017-coverA new paper has just been published in the latest edition of British Birds (March 2017) detailing a 30-year study of breeding merlins on four grouse shooting estates in the Lammermuir Hills in south east Scotland:

Heavisides, A., Barker, A. and Poxton, I. (2017). Population and breeding biology of merlins in the Lammermuir Hills. British Birds 110: 138-154.

The authors are long time members of Lothian & Borders Raptor Study Group and this paper is the latest in a series of peer-reviewed scientific papers written by Scottish Raptor Study Group members reporting on the detrimental effects of intensive grouse moor management on several raptor populations. Other recent publications have included the catastrophic decline of hen harriers on NE Scotland grouse moors, here and the long-term decline of peregrines in the uplands of NE Scotland, here.

The results of the Lammermuir merlin study suggest that illegal persecution is NOT thought to be a contributing factor in this population’s decline. Merlins are generally tolerated on UK grouse moors (presumably as they’re not a big threat to red grouse) and the grouse shooting industry will often use the merlin’s breeding success on grouse moors to counter any accusation that raptors (in general) are illegally killed there. Obviously, that argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

What is suggested in this paper is that an intensification of grouse moor management in the Lammermuirs over the last ten years has probably had an impact on this merlin population, particularly an increase in the heather burning regime.

It’s also interesting to note the authors’ records of other breeding raptor species in the Lammermuirs:

Only three hen harrier broods were found throughout the study period, the last in 1994.

There were at least three sites where peregrines attempted to breed in the early years of the study, the last successful one being in 1994.

Buzzards are commonly seen in the Lammermuirs but only nest on the periphery of the study area, “probably because all of the suitable trees that were used previously have now been removed”.

Short-eared owl sightings were “quite frequent” in the early study years and nests were “occasionally found”, but “these casual observations declined as the years went by and became unusual during the later years”.

Unfortunately we’re not allowed to publish the full paper here (you’ll either have to subscribe to the British Birds journal or contact one of the authors and ask for a copy for personal use). We can, though, publish the abstract. Here it is:


This long-term study was brought to an abrupt end after the 2014 breeding season. This is touched on in the paper but has been more elaborately described during recent conference presentations by one of the authors. The authors mention they enjoyed good cooperation from landowners and gamekeepers during the early study years, and were granted permission to drive their vehicles on estate roads to help access some of the more remote nest sites. However, in 2015, when the researchers contacted the estates to let them know that fieldwork was about to begin, two of the four estates told them they were no longer welcome and withdrew permission for vehicular access.

The authors believe this was a reaction to criticism made directly by the study team of various aspects of the estates’ grouse moor management techniques, particularly the increased use of bridge (rail) traps that were catching / killing non-target species such as dippers, merlin and ring ouzels. The authors also speculated that it may have been a more ‘general backlash’ following recent widespread criticism of driven grouse moor management across the UK.

Whatever the reason was, it flies in the face of the Scottish Moorland Group’s recent claim to the Scottish Parliament’s Environment Committee that grouse moor owners, “Would very much like to see greater cooperation between ourselves, the Raptor Study Groups, and the RSPB” (see here).

Really? Funny way of showing it.

The two estates in question are reported to be the Roxburghe Estate and the Hopes Estate. It’s fascinating to see the Hopes Estate involved in all this.

The Hopes Estate is owned by Robbie Douglas Miller, who also happens to run the Wildlife Estates Scotland (WES) scheme, administered by Scottish Land & Estates, as a way of showcasing the, ahem, fabulous work that estates undertake to protect wildlife. We’ve recently blogged about one of these accredited WES estates – the Newlands Estate where gamekeeper Billy Dick was convicted of throwing rocks at, and stamping on, a buzzard (see here).

In 2014 the Hopes Estate gained accreditation to the WES scheme – independently verified, of course. Estates that are awarded accreditation have to meet certain criteria, including:

  • Commitment to best practice
  • Adoption of game and wildlife management plans that underpin best practice
  • Maintaining species and habitats records
  • Conservation and collaborative work
  • Integration with other land management activities (such as farming, forestry and tourism)
  • Social, economic and cultural aspects (such as employment, community engagement and communications)


21 thoughts on “Merlin population in decline on Lammermuir grouse moors”

  1. I recommend the article (and indeed ‘BB’).

    Booting raptor workers off their land can hardly be viewed as a “commitment to best practice” and even less supporting “conservation and collaborative work”. Surely this means that they cannot continue to be accreditated members of the WES scheme. Who makes the decision regarding membership and have they been asked to review the situation? It ought to call into question too, any public grants they are given (or likely to be given in the future) on this or any other basis.

    1. “Surely this means that they cannot continue to be accredited members of the WES scheme”.

      Erm….Newlands Estate hasn’t been expelled, and their gamekeeper has a current criminal conviction for raptor persecution on that estate.

      That should tell you all you need to know about the integrity of this scheme.

  2. The Lammermuirs are a black hole for raptors and play a major part in preventing raptor dispersal in Southern Scotland.

    It is well known that raptors are perceived to have any negative impact on grouse populations and are systematically removed.

    Any mammals that are perceived to have a negative on grouse populations are systematically removed.

    And know the impact of intensive land management techniques on grouse moors causes decline in Merlins.

    Great place for a golden eagle release scheme!

  3. Another glaring example of grouse muir management with no conservation thought given to any other living thing.

    It is really sad that other species such as Dippers and ring Ouzels are being caught in such traps.

    With not allowing monitoring of Merlin to take place the landowners condemn themselves by their actions

    [Ed: Hi anmac, a quick clarification needed here. The landowners have not ‘disallowed’ merlin monitoring (they don’t have the power to do so thanks to Scottish Outdoor Access Code). What they have done is withdrawn permission for the RSG volunteers to use their vehicles on the estate, which limits the amount of monitoring that three gentlemen in their sixties can manage, which is why they called it a day. This doesn’t invalidate your comment, of course, but just need to be clear about the details of this sorry affair]

  4. Are the ghastly crow cage traps part of the “increased grouse moor management techniques”…Ive personally witnessed merlin trapped in these raptor killing machines on the Lammermuirs? [NB Crow cage traps are banned in several western european countries].

  5. Dont believe for a minute that they dont take out Merlins ,its just that in some years they are really difficult to locate and to find them would entail our custodians of the countryside moving their fat arses out of their landrovers to find them .I could give umpteen instances where I have had breeding Merlin suddenly disappear usually ones close to grit platforms or grouse butts but always close to a track. Some quarters seem to have totally swallowed this nonsense “that most keepers tolerate Merlins “. I have seen Merlin take grouse chicks and once an adult grouse , if I know this then you can bet your bottom dollar those murdering bastards do to.

    1. Hi J Coogan,

      The paper says this about illegal persecution at this study site:

      ‘The possibility of direct illegal persecution cannot be entirely ruled out, although we found no evidence nor had suspicions of this occurring’.

  6. Interesting that Heather burning is having an impact.

    The burning of heather and grass (in England) is governed principally by the Heather and Grass etc Burning (England) Regulations 2007 and the Hill Farming Act 1946.

    The following legislation (amongst others) is also relevant to the burning of heather and grass:

    The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 which prohibits activities (like burning) which disturbs wild birds or destroys their nests or eggs while the nest is in use. The WCA also offers protection to animals, plants and habitats and in some cases burning on a Site of Special Scientific Interest without Natural England’s consent;
    The Conservation (Natural Habitats, & c) Regulations 1994;
    Protection of Birds Act 1954

    Think of the following prohibited actions in terms of heather burning … and think – wouldn’t it be good to see the law enforced!

    1Protection of wild birds, their nests and eggs

    If, save as permitted by or under this Act, any person wilfully—
    (a)kills, injures or takes, or attempts to kill, injure or take, any wild bird; or

    (b)takes, damages or destroys the nest of any wild bird while that nest is in use; or

    (c)takes of destroys an egg of any wild bird,

    or if any person has in his possession or control any wild bird recently killed or taken which is not shown to have been killed or taken otherwise than in contravention of this Act or any order made thereunder, he shall be guilty of an offence against this Act and, if that offence is committed in respect of a bird included in the First Schedule to this Act or in respect of the nest or egg of such a bird, shall be liable to a special penalty.

    Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981
    S1 Protection of wild birds, their nests and eggs.

    (1)Subject to the provisions of this Part, if any person intentionally—

    (a)kills, injures or takes any wild bird;

    (aa)takes, damages or destroys the nest of a wild bird included in Schedule ZA1;

    (b)takes, damages or destroys the nest of any wild bird while that nest is in use or being built; or

    (c)takes or destroys an egg of any wild bird,

    he shall be guilty of an offence.

    (5)Subject to the provisions of this Part, if any person intentionally or recklessly—

    (a)disturbs any wild bird included in Schedule 1 while it is building a nest or is in, on or near a nest containing eggs or young; or

    (b)disturbs dependent young of such a bird,

    he shall be guilty of an offence

    Wildlife and Countryside Act 1971
    S13 Protection of wild plants.

    (1)Subject to the provisions of this Part, if any person—

    (a)intentionally picks, uproots or destroys any wild plant included in Schedule 8; or
    (b)not being an authorised person, intentionally uproots any wild plant not included in that Schedule,

    he shall be guilty of an offence.

    The Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994
    S43 Protection of wild plants of European protected species

    S43(1) It is an offence deliberately to pick, collect, cut, uproot or destroy (by, for example, burning) a wild plant of a European protected species.

    (3) Paragraphs (1) and (2) apply to all stages of the biological cycle of the plants to which they apply.

    (4) A person shall not be guilty of an offence under paragraph (1), by reason of any act made unlawful by that paragraph if he shows that the act was an incidental result of a lawful operation and could not reasonably have been avoided.

    (6) In any proceedings for an offence under this regulation, the plant in question shall be presumed to have been a wild plant unless the contrary is shown.

    S43 The Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994
    Protection of wild plants of European protected species

    S43(1) and S43(3) – It is an offence to intentionally destroy any wild plant of a European protected species at any stage in the biological cycle.

    S43(4) – Where a plant is destroyed incidentally as a result of a lawful operation and the destruction could not reasonably have been avoided, there is no offence. Therefore, when burning or draining heather moorland, estate managers and their staff should carry out the burning or draining in a lawful manner. In order to claim the defence that the destruction was incidental and could not reasonably have been avoided, a manager might need to demonstrate that measures were taken (such as a fauna assessment) to ascertain whether there were any protected plants in the proposed area to be burned or drained, and then an action plan was put in place to ensure that those plants would not be damaged by the burning or draining activities.

  7. Sorry – the comment above is ridiculously long! Feel free to slash and burn my previous lengthy comment to something more manageable – pun not intended!

  8. Just a thought, would it be possible for Raprtor volunteers to cycle into where they are monitoring the Merlins. I myself am 68 and still walk and cycle maybe not as much as I used to but still do it. I don’t know how fit or willing the volunteers would be to do this or if other volunteers could take this on. The estate management could not stop anybody cycling into their estate as this is just another means of manual travel. If this is possible then it would solve the problem of access. I do not know the terrain or distance and mean no disrespect to the raptor workers who have been doing this work. I admire their dedication and commitment to their task. I am merely putting forward a suggestion.

    1. We did consider this idea, but the unwelcoming attitude and withdrawal of support by the keepers convinced us that terminating our study was the only option

      1. The Right to Roam allows vehicular access to disabled people in a vehicle adapted for their use. I can’t help thinking there must be someone in that position who would love to be able to assist in raptor fieldwork.

  9. Raptors need to be protected from all persecution this report highlights the ongoing actions of Estates & Gamekeepers. Very disappointed to read that Roxburgh Estate is refusing access for monitors.

  10. With all due respect Lizzybusy’s lengthy piece misses the point , they burn out the areas where they nested last year or where they see the Merlins displaying early in the season , so they are acting within the law as it stands at present. They are stupid but not that stupid.

    1. I stand corrected with regard to the birds. Thanks for the clarification.

      But I do wonder about the destruction of plants. Amongst the protected plants are the ones listed below. I do wonder if they really do check for the presence of these plants before they undertake burning operations.

      SCHEDULE 8
      Plants which are Protected

      Earwort, Marsh Jamesoniella undulifolia
      Lichen, Arctic Kidney Nephroma arcticum
      Lichen, Ciliate Strap Heterodermia leucomelos
      Lichen, Coralloid Rosette Heterodermia propagulifera
      Lichen, Ear-lobed Dog Peltigera lepidophora
      Lichen, Forked Hair Bryoria furcellata
      Lichen, Golden Hair Teloschistes flavicans
      Lichen, Orange Fruited Elm Caloplaca luteoalba
      Lichen, River Jelly Collema dichotomum
      Lichen, Scaly Breck Squamarina lentigera
      Lichen, Stary Breck Buellia asterella
      Marsh-mallow, Rough Althaea hirsuta
      Marshwort, Creeping (in respect of section 13(2) only) Apium repens
      Moss Drepanocladius vernicosus
      Moss, Alpine Copper Mielichoferia mielichoferi
      Moss, Baltic Bog Sphagnum balticum
      Moss, Blue Dew Saelania glaucescens
      Moss, Blunt-leaved Bristle Orthotrichum obtusifolium
      Moss, Bright Green Cave Cyclodictyon laetevirens
      Moss, Cordate Beard Barbula cordata
      Moss, Cornish Path Ditrichum cornubicum
      Moss, Derbyshire Feather Thamnobryum angustifolium
      Moss, Dune Thread Bryum mamillatum
      Moss, Flamingo Desmatodon cernuus
      Moss, Glaucous Beard Barbula glauca
      Moss, Green Shield Buxbaumia viridis
      Moss, Hair Silk Plagiothecium piliferum
      Moss, Knothole Zygodon forsteri
      Moss Large Yellow Feather Scorpidium turgescens
      Moss, Millimetre Micromitrium tenerum
      Moss, Multifruited River Cryphaea lamyana
      Moss, Nowell’s Limestone Zygodon gracilis
      Moss, Rigid Apple Bartramia stricta
      Moss, Round-leaved Feather Rhynocostegium rotundifolium
      Moss, Schleicher’s Thread Bryum schleicheri
      Moss, Triangular Pygmy Acaulon triquetrum
      Moss, Vaucher’s Feather Hypnum vaucheri
      Mudwort, Welsh Limosella australis
      Water-plantain, Ribbon leaved Alisma gramineum

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