[Short-snouted seahorse]

[Short-snouted seahorse]

Photo credit: Paul Naylor, www.marinephoto.co.uk

Written by SJ Butler

Short-snouted seahorse
Hippocampus hippocampus

So little space
for the sweet whisper
of salt water through seagrass,
dawn filter of sunlight
through leaves, seeds, plankton.

But part this sway, this green
underwater meadow
(dancefloor, nursery, larder),
here’s an enigma:

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Cryptic colour-changers,
they dance together
at dawn in white
and stand all day proud
as gentlemen in dappled Sunday
waistcoats, chest out, elbows in,
shadow fluttering
in the shallows, our hidden

ancestors, strange fish,
unknowable codes: they see you
in full colour. Monthly he births
their young, holds tight
as we uproot their home,
keeps clinging, keeps dancing
though we’ve left them

The secret life of the amazing short snouted seahorse

I had no idea there were seahorses in Britain’s seas, let alone that they swim off Sussex. I was excited – I wanted to get my feet in the water at Beachy Head and seek them out.

Except, of course, I didn’t. Me and the seahorses, we’re hiding out.

But British seahorses are running out of places to hide as we destroy their habitat. The short snouted seahorse lives in seagrass in shallow waters and estuaries, descending to deeper waters in stormy times. It grips the grass with its tail, not being much of a swimmer – it’s nimble rather than speedy – and that’s where it dances each morning with its partner, turning white as it flutters its fins to greet the day. It’s where it catches its prey, sucking in shrimp as they carelessly swim past. It’s where it hatches its young, too, and here’s where seahorses are really surprising.

The males give birth. The female deposits eggs with yolks for food in the male’s pouch. They connect to him through a placenta and grow until he opens his pouch and puffs the fry out into the water. That’s unique in the animal kingdom.

I spoke to Ella Garrud of Sussex Wildlife Trust and she told me she’s never seen a seahorse here. They’re cryptic, she said, talking of their coloration, their knobbly skin and the way they turn black when threatened, but she went on: part of their appeal is their unknowability and the way you always hope you might see one even if you probably won’t.

Seeing a seahorse, says Ella, is incredibly hard because they move with the grass and the

current: they’re completely part of their world.

And I may never see a seahorse alive because in the last 35 years we’ve destroyed half the seagrass in Britain. Trawling and dredging rip it up and destroy the seabed. Speeding boats churn up the water, which seahorses hate. We don’t know how many seahorses there are, but they’re not thriving.

Seahorses are protected: we must not touch them. New Marine Conservation Zones off Sussex offer much-needed protection but allow fishing so the habitat cannot fully recover. A complete no-take zone in Scotland has regenerated faster than anyone hoped: we know what seahorses need, but fishing communities understandably don’t want to lose their livelihood. Can we find less damaging ways to fish our waters, to share them more fairly?

Brought to you by 26 Characters Ltd and The Wildlife Trusts