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Neil Garrick Maidment
I set up the Seahorse Trust really to continue with the work that I started thirty years ago, and the trust was set up in 2000.  And over the years I've worked with a variety of species literally from around the world.  The last few years we've tended to specialise in British seahorses, because we have two species actually resident in the British Isles here.  We are also looking at projects in Kenya, Mozambique and Malta at the present time as well.

Interviewer
Well let’s talk about those two species of British seahorse.  I was quite surprised really to find out that seahorses are reasonably widespread in the UK.  Which species are they?

Neil Garrick Maidment
Yeah, we have two species.  We have the spiny seahorse and we have the short-snouted seahorse, and their names actually indicate very clearly what they look like.  The spiny seahorse has a mane of spines across the top of its head and down its body, whereas the short-snouted seahorse has a relatively shorter snout when you look at the two species together.  And they are literally found right around the British Isles, from Shetland predominantly down the west coast, all the way along the south coast and up the east coast of the British Isles, although there are some spots where we haven’t found them.  And I think that’s really mainly due to not exploring and surveying those areas, as opposed to them not being there, because there’s every reason they should be there.

Interviewer
Are they breeding around the coast or are they just visitors?

Neil Garrick Maidment
No, they're definitely breeding.  One of the results of the British Seahorse Survey that we came across was seahorses are actually indigenous to the British Isles.  They're breeding here, they live here all year round, but they have some amazing behaviour during the year.

Interviewer
And what do we know about their movements around the coast?

Neil Garrick Maidment
One of the things that we know is during the early spring seahorses will migrate up from deeper water into the more shallow waters where there’s more sunlight, more habitat for them to live in, and in consequence more food for them, and that’s where they do their breeding.  And they're there from spring, through the summer into early autumn and around about this time of the year, October, November, they're starting to migrate back into the deeper water again, so that they don’t get damaged by the storms and they can just be safe, basically. 

Interviewer
Are there any differences in the habitat preferences of, say, the short-snouted seahorse and the spiny seahorse?

Neil Garrick Maidment
Yeah, again the sort of look of the seahorse dictates really the preference to the habitat they live in.  The spiny seahorse has these amazing spines, or fronds we call them, and actually growing on the body, and they blend in incredibly well with seagrass beds.  Whereas the short-snouted seahorse is a more rotund seahorse with a shorter snout and can adapt to all sorts of conditions, so from rocky sea beds to sand, silt and sometimes also in seagrass as well - occasionally you get them found together.

Interviewer
What about seagrass beds themselves, because we've heard from seahorse tagging in Tampa Bay in Florida that they are very, very localised, they prefer these seagrass habitats.  Do spiny seahorses have the same affiliation to seagrass beds in this country?  Are they confined to certain areas?

Neil Garrick Maidment
The spiny seahorse without a doubt has a preference for seagrass beds, and the seagrass beds within the British Isles are actually under major threat for a number of reasons, from development, run off from the land, over-fertilisation from farms and this sort of thing.  And in the British Isles we have about 0.01% of the world’s amount of seagrass, and that is disappearing at an alarming rate and being damaged beyond repair unfortunately.

Interviewer
Is there legal protection for seahorses and seagrass beds?

Neil Garrick Maidment
Yeah, through the work of the Seahorse Trust, back in 2008 we got both British seahorses protected under the Wildlife And Countryside Act, which means that they and the habitat that they live in is technically protected.  Now so where you find the spiny seahorse, when it’s in seagrass bed, that seagrass bed also has protection as well.

Interviewer
I know you’ve been studying spiny seahorses in seagrass beds, eel grass, Zostera at Studland Bay in Dorset.  What have you found about the populations there?

Neil Garrick Maidment
Oh it’s an amazing site actually.  We have usually on average about 40 seahorses per year down on the site, and we’re actually tagging individual seahorses, so it’s a very unique project for the British Isles.  But this year it’s been very, very strange, we've only had 11 seahorses in total.

Interviewer
So you know exactly how many seahorses are using these sites, do you?

Neil Garrick Maidment
We do, because we have, yeah, it’s amazing actually.  We have divers in the water two, three times a week surveying the whole site, and we’re there virtually every single week bar when the weather stops us, and we’re monitoring the behaviour of the seahorses, particularly individual seahorses, where we attach a small tag around the neck of the seahorse with an individual number.  So we know the number of the seahorse, we know where’s it’s found, we take the measurements of it, we do a head profile shot, a photograph shot, we take the exact GPS of where we find it, and we monitor what’s actually going on for the whole time that it’s actually in the shallow waters.

Interviewer
From the tagging project at Studland Bay, what sort of things have you found out about the behaviour of the seahorses there?

Neil Garrick Maidment
We've found out some amazing things actually, but one of the crucial pieces of information we discovered last year was that the territories that seahorses hold are for breeding only.  They will tolerate other seahorses in there for feeding, but if they’ve got other seahorses that are potential competition for breeding, then they're not allowed into the site.  So that’s one of the many things we've discovered about seahorses since the survey’s been running.

Interviewer
How do seahorses see other seahorses off?

Neil Garrick Maidment
They basically have a snapping action.  With their long snouts they actually flick their snouts at the other seahorses, and it’s quite a powerful sort of snicking sort of action and it does scare them off.  They do move very rapidly, so it’s quite effective.

Interviewer
Just one thing as well you mentioned there have been up to 40 seahorses using the seagrass beds there, but there’s only been 11.  Why do numbers vary, is that because populations are declining?

Neil Garrick Maidment
Not in this particular instance.  What’s happened is we've had this very strange weather system this last twelve months, because of the very cold early winter last year, and we've had quite a cloudy spring and summer this year, so we haven’t had the plankton cycle.  And, as we all know, plankton is the basis, it’s the building blocks of life, and without that, we haven’t had the food that the seahorses could feed on, so we haven’t had the quantity of seahorses there.

Interviewer
Are there seahorses in the seagrass bed secure at Studland Bay?

Neil Garrick Maidment
Well, not really, unfortunately.  We have to have a little bit of conflict at Studland Bay because of the amount of boats that are using the site and also it’s a very fragile habitat.  So we need to find a way of actually sorting that out.  Because what’s happening are boats coming along, they're dropping anchors into the seagrass and creating holes in the seagrass that are not repairing unfortunately.

Interviewer
Now obviously boats have been using the area for some time, so how are you going to effect a compromise between the needs of the boat owners and the needs of the seahorse and the seagrass beds?

Neil Garrick Maidment
Yes, without a doubt people have been using it for a long time, and here at the Trust we’re not against people using the site.  Many times we've been said that we’re anti-boat, and it’s not the case at all.  We truly believe that the site should be used by all.  But one of the things that we've put forward, a suggestion we've put forward, is the use of environmentally friendly moorings.  Now these moorings basically screw into the seabed; they have almost like an elasticated rope to the surface to the mooring buoy.  So the boats come along, they moor up on these, they don’t have to drop an anchor, and as the tide comes in and out, whereas with a traditional mooring the chain actually scrapes on the seabed, with these environmentally friendly moorings that doesn’t happen, so you don’t get the damage occurring.

So in a good situation, when you put these moorings in, it means that the seagrass grows right up to where the mooring exists, everybody’s happy, the boat owner’s happy, the conservation is happy, the seahorses in particular are happy, and it solves the situation.  But we’re trying to persuade the authorities to put these in at the moment.

Interviewer
What about future protection for the seahorses?  Is the area likely to be protected in future?

Neil Garrick Maidment
Well Studland Bay has actually been put forward as a proposed marine conservation zone, and we are also working with the marine management organisation to put together a group of users of the Bay, people that are interested in the Bay, to try and look at the best ways to achieve results for everybody really.

8’25” 

Creative commons image Credit: Hippocampus / Stavros Markopoulos / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Hippocampus hippocampus, a species of seahorse that has been found in the River Thames