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.