EAST Lancashire’s grouse moors are helping to keep the threat to Britain’s smallest birds of prey at bay.

Merlins are flying in to nest on heather moorland managed by gamekeepers for wild red grouse like those in the Trough of Bowland.

A new study for the Moorland Association (MA) has found dramatic gains in merlin populations on such land.

There are only around 900 to 1,500 breeding pairs of merlin in the UK but experts say the tiny birds of prey are recovering from a population crash in the 20th Century.

This latest study assessed the distribution of breeding merlin in England and found 78 per cent of records were on protected and conserved iconic heather landscapes kept for red grouse.

More importantly, according to MA chairman Robert Benson, it suggests numbers of breeding records have doubled on grouse moors in the last 20 years.

He said: “While the threatened species has done exceptionally well on land looked after by keepers, the beautiful birds are struggling in other upland areas, where breeding records have fallen by more than half in the same period.”

The data suggests that on the moorland where there are gamekeepers, there are four times more merlin.

The gains on grouse moors have helped maintain the protected bird’s population, rather than see it join the list of endangered species.

The results have been welcomed by MA members who manage more than 850,000 acres of heather-filled land.

Mr Benson said he was very pleased that proper management of the moors had such a positive effect on merlin.

He explained: “Plenty of heather to nest in, a ready food supply and the control of merlin’s natural predators are the winning combination of grouse moor management.

“These lovely birds of prey with square-cut tails and pointed wings are doing well on our members’ land, but numbers are becoming perilously low elsewhere.

“That the work of gamekeepers has been recognised by this valuable study is praise indeed for their efforts, particularly as the nesting season is under way.”