Fish

Neil Fletcher takes a regular look at the everyday wildlife at Woods Mill, headquarters of the Sussex Wildlife Trust, and at his home in nearby Henfield.

Before the big rain came, I looked down into the water of the stream, which for once was like crystal. I looked down on a stickleback, poking his little nest with little dabs of his snout, fussing like an over attentive nursemaid. The nest was a tiny duvet of algae and weed held together, and to the stream bed, with glue of his own making. Inside, a female had been tempted to lay her eggs, and now fertilised, the male guarded them, fanning cool water over the nest with the constant murmur of his pelvic fins, and with little nudges and pokes. Other males are not allowed nearby. Scarlet belly and kingfisher blue eye warn them.

I am reminded immediately of my eight year old self, taking a pair of sticklebacks to school and setting up a tank so we, classmates, teachers, could all watch with wonder and delight these tiny, complex, intelligent lives unfold before us. The fish did well, until one day something appalling occurred. A thick white object burst out of the fish’s belly, the inspiration for Alien. It was, I now know, an eruption of Schistocephalus solidus, an extremely common tapeworm which infects sticklebacks. As the instigator of the tank it befell my responsibility to clean it out when the water had at last turned murky, smelly and grimy, a potential duty I had not foreseen. My pragmatic approach was to clumsily manhandle the tank down to the toilets, and pour the lot down the sink – a couple of gallons of water, several pounds of smelly sand. I recall the caretaker, sink plunger in hand – “You’ve got your brains in your boots, you boys”. My first taste of a lifetime of guilt and shame for unintended minor misdemeanours.

It is now a rather discouraged practice to keep wild animals at home, no matter how small. There is some sense in this, more often than not they die for lack of what they really need. But, as a boy, with a bedroom filled with sticklebacks, tadpoles, slow worms, grass snakes (which escaped), voles, mice, caterpillars and everything else, watching animal behaviour and thinking I was discovering things the first time anybody knew about it, I was inspired to spend the whole of my adult life devoted to natural history.

The Internet is great, and so are wildlife films, but let’s not forget it’s not the real thing. The real thing is even better.

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Comments

Fish — 3 Comments

  1. I was that little boy! When I was little, we could take newts and watervoles home, scare the girls with slow worms and got half a crown for a bucket full of cowslips that we had collected off Fat Belly Woman to be used for wine making. We knew the whereabouts of every bird’s nest and where the puff balls grew the biggest. The list of memories is tinged with sadness however, every time I visit the major supermarket and retail park that now smothers my childhood, happy hunting, ground.

  2. I’m glad to hear it Nick, (well, not about the supermarket). As a regular viewer of TV quiz shows like University Challenge, Mastermind, Eggheads, I’m always shocked by the contestant’s lack of even basic natural history knowledge, in spite of their obvious huge knowledge of everything else. I put it down down to the lack of a misspent youth.
    Hopefully the Sussex Wildlife Trust can put some of that right with their ‘hands on’ approach to education. (No wonder the Sussex Wildlife Trust team beat the Eggheads and won £37,000 – every penny of which they donated to the Trust!).

  3. My happiest memory is wellys on, fishing net in hand catching sticklebacks to take home in a jam jar.I must have spent hours with no adults poking their nose in sploshing up and down the stream.Being brave enough to duck down and go through the tunnel and go further upstream.On my 60th my daughter managed to get me some tadpoles I’ve just let them go as tiny frogs.

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