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The minnow, the unsung hero of our rivers

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Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 12:15 UK time, Monday, 30 May 2011

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 by Dr. Mark Everard

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 by Dr. Mark Everard

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.


  • Comment number 1.

    Thank you so much for featuring this generally unseen aspect of our native fauna, I've spent many years appreciating the charms of these mini-marvels and can't tell you how great it is to see them get equal billing with the the fluffy stuff!

    I've spent my entire professional life with ornamental fishes and can honestly say that of all the rare and exotic species from far-flung reefs or rainforest streams, none can compare to our stickleback for sheer character and interest. No wonder so many behavioural scientists chose them as lab partners..

  • Comment number 2.

    Just wanted to congratulate Mark Everard on his piece about tiddlers. I was completely ignorant of them. Minnows and sticklebacks rule! They are gorgeous. I was absolutely glued to the tv. Jane, Birmingham

  • Comment number 3.

    Thank you for this piece ...I was entranced ... it bought back memories told by my father of his childhood ...he and his best friend ...jams jars tied with string and nets ...off to see what they could find in the local stream ...such a bye-gone time when children would wonder off safely to amuse themselves ...I hope this video encourages some grand-dads to put on the wellies and teach their grand-children the wonders of the local waters

  • Comment number 4.

    I used to catch these little fish in jam jars when I was little as we were lucky to live near a quiet stream. But to be honest, I have never known the difference between minnows and sticklebacks nor what different colours and personalities they have! Thank you so much for enlightening me!

  • Comment number 5.

    I loved watching the piece about the tiny fresh water fish........it brought back a lot of memories of me standing in the middle of the village pond trying to catch these with my bare hands...........oh what joy ☺.........must do it again some time

  • Comment number 6.

    Just spent yesterday exploring, sharing with my boys what I spent my childhood doing. No TV, no smartphones, no fancy gadgets, just us and field and stream. So important to explore these avenues when so many kids are caught up in virtual worlds. Here's to many more of these day's out with this glorious spring weather!


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