The minnow, the unsung hero of our rivers
Guest blog: River lover Dr Mark Everard blogs on his passion, the minnow.
Although much of my life is spent by the river, springtime is a special time to watch the wildlife wake up and migrate back. Swallows and martins return, willow leaves unfurl, and the spring blossoms burst out. But, above all for me, the little fishes start their elaborate courtship rituals.
I simply love the little fishes of our rivers and ponds. It's a shame that they are so overlooked and underappreciated. They are truly beautiful and fascinating, not to mention being a fun way to get up close and personal with wildlife.
Minnows, for example, at this time of year become some of the most colourful fishes in the world... literally! Male fish deepen in hue to emeralds and golds, brilliant scarlet underneath with white fin bases, and develop a jewellery of white nodules over their heads and fins to aid spawning.
Sticklebacks are, rather famously, also true showmen. Some of my earliest memories are of snatching brilliantly-dressed male fish from local ponds, vivid red beneath a body of metallic greens and blues, and fiercely territorial too. But, underneath that bravado, they are really 'new men'.
Stickleback © Dr. Mark Everard
Have you ever watched a male stickleback dance his characteristic zig-zag dance in the pond or stream margin, luring more sedately-dressed females into his elaborately-constructed nest of weeds to lay their eggs? The male will then drive off the female and nurture the eggs attentively, fanning them and removing any that are infertile, and guarding the fry until they become free-swimming.
And of course the delightful bullhead. Who cannot love these tiny, toad-faced troglodytes? Bullheads inhabit caves beneath large stones in well-aerated river shallows, guarding their territory jealously. Many can live out their whole lives under the same rock.
And they too make good fathers, the male fish enticing neighbouring females to lay their eggs on the ceiling of his cave and nurturing them until the fry swim off to establish their own territories.
Bullhead fish © Dr. Mark Everard
Many of my early childhood days were spend turning over stones and catching these big-headed fishes in my hands. But do always roll the stone back and return the fish exactly as you found it, or they may become disoriented.
If you want to go minnow watching, please here are some do's and don'ts:
Get out there and explore the wonderful world right under your feet
Wear warm and waterproof clothing and footwear (ideally wellies)
Paddle safely at all times, with all younger children closely accompanied
Stop and marvel at the everyday wonders you will see, leaving behind only ripples as you leave
Replace all rocks you turn exactly where and how you found them
Handle the things you find unnecessarily
Put bullheads back in any place other than exactly where you picked them up
Transfer fish between waters (you need a legal permit to do that)
Disturb breeding fish
Venture anywhere you do not have permission
If you want to know more about these and other of the marvellous small fishes of the British Isles, you might like to look at my book The Little Book of Little Fishes, or visit my website. But, above all, get yourself out there by the waterside to enjoy them at first hand.
Dr Mark Everard is a scientist and author who lives by the Bristol Avon in Wiltshire. He has worked in five continents on environmental and human development issues, specialising in the water environment. He is also a noted angler and a regular contributor to the press, TV and radio, and has published eight books to date, four of them on fish. Mark has also served in many government advisory groups and professional institutions, including currently as Chair of the Institution of Environmental Sciences.