RARE pictures of merlin chicks have been released by an organisation committed to protecting the threatened species.

The Moorland Association (MA) says Britain’s smallest birds of prey are bucking a national decline and breeding well on heather moorland managed by gamekeepers for wild red grouse.

An independent study for the MA found that there were four times more breeding records for merlin on those moors compared to moorland without gamekeepers.

Fred Mitchinson, Peak District headkeeper, has worked with licensed bird ringers and recorded numbers for more than 20 years.

He described the findings as very encouraging.

The number of breeding records appear to have doubled on grouse moors in the past 20 years, while the same survey revealed a fall of more than half in other upland areas.

Mr Mitchinson said: “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 chick (pictured above) is from a brood of three females and a male – particularly encouraging as it’s rare for us to have a male.”

Ringing is carefully regulated, with licences issued by Natural England and permits obtained from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).

Mr Mitchinson said that there would be many more merlin, but they do not mix with people, and especially dogs.

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

“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’.”

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

MA members manage more than 860,000 acres of heather moorland, and chairman Robert Benson said the gains on grouse moors had helped keep merlin off the Red List of endangered species.

He said: “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.”