Seahorses In The UK: How This Charity Is Saving Them
Seahorses are one of the most unique marine animals in the world, but they're under threat.
Find out what The Seahorse Trust is doing to protect these fascinating creatures and what you can do to help.
Wed 6 Jul 2022
While seahorses are frequently used to evoke images of remote tropical waters, this most enigmatic and fascinating of marine animals can be found much closer to home here in Britain.
Here's everything you need to know about these fascinating creatures and why they are an important part of the UK's seas.
What is a seahorse?
The seahorse is a completely unique species, having evolved from the pipefish over millennia into its current remarkable form.
While seahorses are certainly fish, living in water and breathing through gills, they lack some of the key features normally associated with fish, such as a tail fin.
In their place, they have gained some highly unusual ones, such as their long necks and snouts that point downwards to hoover up vast quantities of food.
Another extraordinary feature is their eyes: seahorses can see in full colour even in incredibly low light and have eyes which work independently on either side of their heads, allowing them to look both forwards and backwards at the same time.
And then perhaps most famously: the seahorse is the only species in which it is the male that becomes pregnant, carries the young and gives birth.
While seahorses have very few natural predators once they reach adulthood, unfortunately, they face significant threats from humans
Where are seahorses found?
Estimates of the exact number of seahorse species globally still vary widely, but there are around 54 species found in coastal areas right across the world.
Of these, there are just two that you might be lucky enough to spot in Britain’s seas:
- the spiny seahorse (Hippocampus guttulatus)
- the short-snouted seahorse (Hippocampus hippocampus)
Both species have been recorded all around our coastline, as far north as the Shetland Isles, although they seem to favour the south and west coasts – most likely because the Gulf Stream brings with it one of their favoured foods, plankton.
In the summer, spiny seahorses tend to seek out shallow weedy areas such as eelgrass beds, while short-snouted seahorses can be found in most other coastal habitat types.
In the winter, both species move further out to sea to seek shelter from storms, where they retreat to greater depths and anchor themselves to rocks or algae.
The two species can co-exist happily as their different snout lengths mean they target different food sources and therefore avoid competition.
Why are seahorses under threat?
While seahorses have very few natural predators once they reach adulthood, unfortunately, they face significant threats from humans, with their preference for coastal habitats leaving them particularly vulnerable to interference.
Globally, major threats are posed by non-selective fishing practices and by the trades in traditional medicines, curios, and pets.
In Britain, a major threat is the destruction and fragmentation of their habitat, often as a result of a lack of awareness.
A key example is Studland Bay.
The sheltered seagrass bed habitat of this beautiful bay on England’s South Coast is arguably the country’s most important site for seahorses, with spiny seahorses, in particular, known to set up territories and breed there.
Studland Bay was designated as a Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) in 2019 specifically on the basis of its importance as a seahorse habitat and seagrass bed, following years of campaigning by The Seahorse Trust and others.
Separately, both of Britain’s seahorse species have since 2008 been legally protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, again as a result of data gathered by The Seahorse Trust over the years.
The Act makes it an offence to harm or disturb either the seahorses or their habitat.
Despite these multiple layers of protection, Studland’s seahorse population remains under threat, in large part due to the bay’s perennial popularity with recreational boaters who drop anchors which tear through the seagrass bed, fragmenting the habitat and damaging the fragile balance of this ecosystem and its functioning.
If you ever come across a seahorse, alive or dead, please report it to The Seahorse Trust
What is being done to protect seahorses?
During the first coronavirus lockdown in spring 2020, with fewer boats visiting Studland Bay, The Seahorse Trust recorded a notable resurgence in seahorse numbers at this site with a Seahorse Trust dive team spotting 16 seahorses on just one dive and the most they have ever recorded, 21, on another.
This finding demonstrated the ability of the ecosystem to bounce back when it is not disturbed and simply reiterated the need for more effective management which actually lives up to the site’s protected status.
As a result, we are delighted now to be working in partnership with forward-thinking boating business boatfolk to instal eco-moorings at the site: a win-win solution which allows boaters to continue to enjoy the marine environment without destroying a vital seahorse habitat which is also a major carbon store.
Where can you see seahorses?
This may lead you to wonder, how can I see seahorses in the UK?
However, seahorses are a legally protected species in the UK and you must not actively seek them out unless you have a licence granted by the Marine Management Organisation for research or conservation purposes.
There is a very good reason for this requirement: seahorses are very easily disturbed and suffer significantly from stress.
If you are out snorkelling or diving, and you happen to come across a seahorse, what should you do?
First, enjoy – you are one of the lucky few who will ever have this experience in Britain’s seas!
Please remember not to touch the seahorse or pursue it if it swims away and to move on after five minutes at most.
Most importantly, please enjoy the moment and do not take photos – flash photography of seahorses is banned as it is known to severely harm or kill them.
If you do not have the opportunity to get out snorkelling or diving yourself, rock pooling and strandline searching are wonderful and accessible ways to enjoy the incredible array of marine wildlife found around the UK coastline.
As well as interesting artefacts such as shark egg cases, you will come across a huge range of species, perhaps even including seahorses.
You may be lucky enough to find one swimming in a rockpool, but unfortunately, a more likely scenario for beachgoers is the discovery of dead seahorses washed ashore from coastal waters as they are not strong swimmers.
While this is always a sad find, there is a huge amount of vital data we can gather from these, such as age, sex, species, cause of death and what this tells us about the population as a whole.
What can you do for seahorse conservation?
If this article has inspired you at all to help save Britain’s remarkable seahorses, there are lots of ways to do so.
First, we can all make small changes to our own lives to better live in harmony with the marine environment.
How about pledging to reduce or cut out your use of plastics, to not buy fish that is caught unsustainably and, above all, to never buy curios such as starfish, shells, or dried seahorses.
Secondly, if you ever come across a seahorse, alive or dead, please report this to us at The Seahorse Trust via our British Seahorse Survey and if you have collected a dead seahorse you can also send this to us for research.
All of this data is fundamental to developing our understanding of the species and therefore supporting better conservation outcomes.
Last but not least, without donations and volunteers, marine conservation charities simply could not continue to do the work we do.
Here at the Seahorse Trust we gratefully accept experienced divers as volunteers and also donations to our core work, to our fund for the installation of further eco moorings to protect Studland’s seahorses, or to adopt a seahorse!
If you’re not in a position to volunteer or donate, please do follow us on social media, join our mailing list and spread the word.
Neil Garrick-Maidment is the Executive Director and Founder, The Seahorse Trust
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