Steve, who had been striding with alarming ease through the knee high bracken, gorse and burnt heather stalks, stopped. He seemed to be consulting his phone. I assumed that he was just waiting for me to catch up. I stopped because I had to. I was struggling to breathe. Around me was the bleak windblown hillside so typically of the Peak District. Very few trees, just miles of hillside cut into by deep gullies, crumbling valleys full of water, rocks and general floods debris. I had just struggled down one side and up out of the other of one particularly deep one to reach this particular spot. I moved on and Steve stayed where he was.
What was I doing in my shorts, a bad idea given the vegetation, on a bleak peak district hillside? I was lucky enough to be tagging along (sorry) to observe the ringing and PiT tags being attached to four Merlin chicks. This is part of a programme that is going on across Northern England, so that the Merlin’s can be tracked using a small tag attached to their leg which is then read by an electronic ring that is placed around the nest sites. It is a long term project but an important one as it might shed light on why the Merlin population is declining and enable scientists to understand the nesting habits and range of these, our smallest raptor.
As I approached Steve, he turned and pointing slightly ahead of where he stood said, “Well there they are, all four of them.” The four were Merlin chicks, perhaps three weeks old. Their nest was just a patch of ground under the vegetation, and the adults were away hunting. The chicks were looking at us, part downy part feathers but with well-developed talons and strong hooked looking beaks and having established that we were not their parents bringing food, decided to adopt a variety of protests, all of them suggesting that picking them up would not be a good idea. Steve was here to ring and tag them though and it was after all for their own good, or at least that of their species, a concept that is obviously lost on the chicks and their adult parents. Steve got stuck in straight away and as well as the ringing and tagging whilst he was at it he weighed and measured them. I offered to help but he politely and wisely declined, so I just crouched down in the heather and gaped back at the little bundles of embryonic ruthlessness. I tried hard not to be sentimental about them, after all they are part of an ecosystem, and environment that relies a complex food chain of which they are already an integral part, but it is hard not to be blown away by their beauty and by the extraordinary life that these beautiful birds live. Steve, professional and slick was making good progress with the ringing and tagging despite the chicks brave attempts at resistance. One, a female, protested loudly and this seemed to attract the attention of a couple of buzzards. They floated around for a while before disappearing over the horizon. Buzzards will predate Merlin chicks, but the female merlin is a dedicated defender of her young and as long as she is around they are usually safe. Steve had almost finished when the adult male appeared about thirty metres away and began to call the female. He had food and was calling the female up to give her the food so she could feed the chicks. As soon as we could we packed up and left, and set off back down the hill to regain the path. Steve will pop back in a week or so to check the nest but by then it will be harder to find the chicks as they tend to disperse into the deeper heather. This helps protected them from potential predators. As we strode up and down the hillside, or rather Steve strode, I ploughed my way through, we noticed trays of medicated grit for the red grouse. I found a cartridge from a rifle, which presumably been used to take out one of the many predators that enjoys red grouse.
As we regained the path, I cast a final look back across to the hillside, it was almost impossible to recognise the nest site. A raven flapped lazily across the sky and a female ring ouzel alarmed and flitted through the heather. It had been a special thing to witness not only the remarkable life cycle of the Merlins and their chicks but also the dedication of Steve and the care and unfussy way that he did his work. Perhaps this is all the more remarkable for he and the others that like him do this work are mainly volunteers. As we headed back to the cars and a bacon sandwich, I quietly wished the little family of Merlins well. Fingers crossed that they survive all the hazards that face them and that soon they too will be able to soar and hunt on the moors.