Where have all the merlins gone? A lament for the Lammermuirs

Earlier this year a peer-reviewed scientific paper was published in the journal British Birds, documenting the long-term decline of merlins on four driven grouse moors in the Lammermuirs, south east Scotland (see here).

In that paper the authors, all members of the Lothian & Borders Raptor Study Group, detailed the results of their 30-year study of merlins, brought to an abrupt halt at the end of the 2014 breeding season after several estate owners refused vehicular access for nest site monitoring.

The authors concluded that illegal persecution was NOT a contributory factor in the decline of the merlin population in this area, but suggested that the intensification of grouse moor management, particuarly an increase in heather burning, had probably had a detrimental impact.

This month the authors have another paper published, this time in the journal Scottish Birds:

This paper discusses many of the scientific results from their earlier paper, but is written in more of a commentary style and includes more information about the changes they observed during this long-term study.

This poignant paper is well worth a read: Where have all the Merlins gone

15 thoughts on “Where have all the merlins gone? A lament for the Lammermuirs”

  1. A timely reminder that, far from any concessions, the persecution issue is growing against a period of dramatic intensification of grouse moor management – and, as this study suggests, it is not simply persecution that is causing environmental degradation and species loss.

    1. Merlin decline can not be attributed solely to intensification of moorland management although it may have had a contributory factor here. I have been involved in Merlin survey on Exmoor and there has been no intensification of moorland management there, even the reverse bar Dunkery Beacon, and Merlin is now extinct in the South West i believe and this follows a trend of contraction of range northwards across Europe. Here in Wales Merlin are in significant decline also; we can not allow such a totemic part of Celtic culture to simply disapear from our hills, the great Myrrddin can not be allowed to disappear in as great a mystery as the original wizard’s identity; whether fact or medieval fiction. I would really like to see some papers on Merlin global habitat requirement, it is only with overgrazing of uplands that heather moor is created as a controlled part of upland succession for the sporting habits of the British/English upper class; would re wilding significant tranches of the uplands in mosaics of bog, heather and that which is called in Wales frydd ie birch and rowan, fir and alder scrub benefit the Merlin ? I would appreciate the upland bigwigs answering this question. I can not help but believe that more trees can only help prey densities if in mosaics and varying stages of succession ? What is the average tree density of the Merlin territory globally and given the stresses that we all know are occurring would more trees help ? RSPB, BTO Wildife Trusts JNCC NRW et al; please respond this year.

      1. Merlins on moorland prey primarily on Meadow Pipits and Skylarks. Both these species migrate away from the moors for the winter, and naturally so do the Merlins. It seems to me quite feasible that the massive decline in common farmland passerines has affected their winter prey supply, so that could be at least part of the reason for the Merlin’s decline. In my local area Merlins seemed to have a preference for Skylarks and Greenfinches, both of which are now almost totally absent, where flocks of several hundred of the former were common in stubble fields.

  2. Seeing as its Merlins, was the actual numbers peer reviewed or just the results of the findings. If not, how can the reported numbers be independently reviewed. Especially as there seems to be valid questions on Merlin reporting. I wonder if we could get a similar paper done for the Angus glens. This would provide a good comparison against similar grouse moor areas. When ive been out there hasn’t seemed to be a lack of Merlins in my area.

  3. Clearly the ‘lauds’ and there men and women have a lot to hide, however as with many very wealthy individuals they can hide behind their wealth.

  4. I made the point to Patrick Laurie when replying to his blog, the other week, (complaining about the reaction to his piece in The Scotsman), about Curlews. Suddenly Curlew seems to be the moorland managers favourite when it always used to be Merlins they claimed massively benefitted from intensive management. Funnily enough he didn’t allow the comment on his blog, but it’s really not that long since GWCT et al claimed Merlins thrived on their uplands, now it’s all about the waders.

    1. I have been banging on about this for years on my patch Merlins are regularly taken out ,the scenario is – I find a new site, they disappear at small chick stage , then surprise, surprise next April the exact bank is burned out. Bastards.

  5. Regardless of the various threats & pressures on Merlins from other sources this is a classic case study of what happens to the moorland environment when the massive intensification of shooting bag expectations takes over. The massive public subsidy involved is perhaps a major target for reforming pressure ?
    Extensive exploitation of a renewable resource is one thing – unsustainable intensive over exploitation is very different & is now obvious on driven grouse moors.
    The removal of habitat variation in old deep heather, riparian zones & shelter belts is telling.
    Pipits,finches,chats etc etc all decline along with [ indeed before ] raptors.
    Nobody with long experience of upland ecology is fooled by the propaganda of the grouse industry.

    Keep up the pressure !

  6. Humphrey Ap Evans in his book “an illustrated guide to falconry” published in 1973 wrote the best chances of getting young Merlins for falconry was to visit a grouse moor in early spring and offer the gamekeeper money to leave the young alone.
    The UK Merlin population to their detriment prefer heather moorland to any other kind of habitat, by exterminating a species at its preferred breeding sites there is little chance of it extending it’s range into less favourable or poorer habitats.
    Merlins have the same reproductive capacities as Kestrels and Sparrowhawks, the latter species quickly re established old territories after the effects of pesticide poisoning had worn off, globally across their range Merlin’s have proved to be adaptable, In Canada they have adapted to breeding in parks and cemeteries in cities and towns around the Canadian prairies.
    we don’t even have Merlins nesting on less favourable Moorland, there is one reason and only one reason for this, the criminal minority controlling our uplands that our government are still unable and unwilling to control.

  7. The places I have had the best views of Merlins are airports. A pair thrived at Prestwick, roosting in a tree in our car park. I would sit at the flying club on days off and watch the male in particular hunting a few feet off the ground passing within a few metres of the clubhouse. I’ve seen others at East Midlands Airport too. I’ve rarely been in the right place to see them in the hills or on moorland.

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