Stallions of the Sea

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Evolution really pulled out all the stops when it came to seahorses. With a monkey-like tail, horse-like head and kangaroo-style belly, they wouldn’t look out of place alongside the griffins in Harry Potter or the kraken of mythical legend. And their physiology doesn’t disappoint either. Amongst their unique characteristics, seahorses boast ‘chameleon -style’ eyes that move independently of each other, skin that changes colour and (in a turn of events that would make even the most ardent feminist proud), exhibit a mode of reproduction in which the male rather than the female becomes pregnant.

Unfortunately, despite (or perhaps because of) their fantastical qualities, seahorses are disappearing all over the world and at alarming rates. Imprisoned behind glass in the aquarium trade, or dried up and used in traditional medicine *- seahorses have value whether they are alive or dead. What’s more, these slow-moving animals tend to have limited home ranges and long-term sexual partnerships; rather endearing traits but traits that also make them vulnerable to overfishing, habitat loss, and destructive fishing practices such as trawling.

As seahorse numbers dwindle, conservationists are increasingly trying to make the public aware of the ‘Seahorse’s Plight’, whilst scientists have introduced campaigns (such as Project Seahorse) which aim to research and manage populations all over the globe. However, while we’re all making a fuss about seahorses dying out on the other side of the world, many Brits still remain unaware of the fact that seahorses are living in the wild right on their doorstep…..and they’re in trouble too.

Don’t believe me? Head down to Studland Bay, in deepest darkest Dorset, where hidden amongst the eel-grass beds, you will find one of Britain’s biggest breeding populations of spiny seahorse; one of two species of seahorse currently found in the UK (the other is the short snouted seahorse). Spiny seahorses have been long-term residents at this beautiful spot, but it is only relatively recently that scientists have cottoned onto the fact that they are actually breeding here (and across the UK); a realisation that helped to win both seahorse species fully protected status under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (2008). Sadly, long-term monitoring under the Studland Bay Seahorse Tagging Project* ² suggests that seahorse numbers here are disappointingly low (at a measly six to ten individuals per year); a trend which reflects what is going on nationally. Whilst British seahorses may escape the more perverse traditions of the Orient, they are not without their own problems, and in Studland Bay at least, habitat loss (caused by fragmentation of eel-grass beds) is thought to have led to population declines*³. Recent attempts to mitigate this environmental damage by designating Studland Bay as one of Britain’s 127 promised Marine Conservation Zones resulted in what can only be described as an unprecedented failure….so much so that in the same way that politicians apparently ‘misinterpreted’ expenses claims, they also managed to take the promised 127 sites and implement only 31 (apparently numbers just ain’t their thing).

Conservation, if it is to be done effectively, should (I believe) start at home. It’s no good telling Brazil to stop cutting down their rainforest, or telling Kenya to stop poaching all the rhino, if we can’t look after what’s in our backyard. British waters hold a wealth of hidden gems – perhaps it’s time to start appreciating, and protecting, what we’ve got.

*150 million seahorses are used in Chinese medicine every single year. Apparently it is thought that seahorses will not only make people grow, but also act as a natural aphrodisiac……interesting combination 😛.

*²A subset of the national ‘British Seahorse Survey’ – which monitors the countrywide distribution of seahorses.

*³ This is according to a report written by the Seahorse Trust in 2013. There is some controversy as to whether damage to eel-grass beds is caused by the sheer number of pleasure boats that anchor at Studland, particularly in fine weather. In what can only be described as a ‘peacock display’, boat owners tend to moor in the shallows where they can show off their boats, but boat anchors and heavy mooring ropes uproot the eel-grass meadows. Some claim that such boat anchoring is not causing any harm, but there can be no doubt that meadows are not as healthy as they should be. Surely given that Studland is such an important site, boaters can moor their vessels somewhere else?

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Louisa Wood

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