Aquarist Steven Baker has set up a tank that extends way above the watermark. We meet the man who brought a piece of Borneo to Britain.
WORDS: NATHAN HILL & STEVEN BAKER
PHOTOGRAPHY: NATHAN HILL
Steven Baker is an aquarist with ambition. A long term fishkeeper, with ample time spent in the industry, he’s picked up a lot of ideas along the way.
For some time now, Steven’s tank photos have caught my eye. To my mind, he’s a conventionally unconventional fishkeeper. I see classic biotopes — his African Rift lake aquaria, which we’ll be featuring in a future issue — perfectly executed, while his unique take on a community tank is a modern angle on an old theme.
My original plan was to cover all of Steven’s five current set-ups in one heavily abridged feature, but the first tank I saw threw all of that out of the window. Hitting you like a triffid as soon as you enter his living room, Steven’s above water/below water set up becomes the main attraction.
Leering from the wall — he calls it the ‘wall of life’ — is a bounty of colour. Vain orchids compete for attention amongst creeping vines, and it is only with persuasion that I’m convinced that what I see isn’t synthetic. A squeeze of a leaf confirms its authenticity.
Below it all, nearly lost against the colours, sits a glass-trapped pool of orange water, testament to the acids and decomposition true of Steve’s intended habitat. Half filled, this tank is his vision of Borneo — slow and dark, and alive with fish that require patience.
Living the dream
Here’s what Steven has to say about his flagship aquarium:
“Imagine setting off to a faraway tropical country; a couple of days travelling on airliners, beat-up buses, small charter planes and 4x4s. You set down for the night under a roof thatched with palm leaves supported by bamboo frames. It’s warm enough that walls aren’t really necessary.
“By afternoon the following day you’re walking through dense, tropical rainforest surrounded by lush growth and an abundance of life. Hours in, you stumble upon a small, shaded forest stream. The water is stained brown by discarded leaves from the canopy above. Terrestrial plants grow sparsely in the low light but enjoy the high humidity along the banks. More adaptable plants spill into the water where they grow fully submerged. Taking a few steps for a closer inspection of the plants, you notice the hasty movement of fish darting away from the vegetation to be lost among the leaf litter.
“That’s what I did... I imagined my trip to Borneo.
“Aside the barriers of time and money I’m unsure I’ll ever actually go. The idea of creating all the pollution travelling across the world, so people like me can stomp through the undergrowth and go home with memory sticks full of imagery turns a sweet dream sour.
“So… forget about it? No. I can still experience it indirectly.
An authentic replica
“If you’ve visited the Eden project in Cornwall or if you’ve ever driven a Caterham7 kit car rather than the original Lotus7 you will understand that replicas can be authentic — and so can an aquarium.
“A biotope is fishkeeping’s Caterham — a product of lengthy research that aims to be an authentic replica of nature. For the tank here, it was around three months between the original idea and laying down anything physical.
“First, I needed to cross reference the fish I wanted, build a shortlist of fish species and study pictures and videos of my desired habitat. Once a design was conceived I could consider the materials and methods, factoring in how to conceal my cables, pipes, heaters and filters.
“I wanted to move an existing shoal of Redline rasbora, Trigopoma pauciperforatum, from their 70 l dwelling to a more spacious home. They’re not a fish that normally floats my boat; I’m attracted to character and oddities, fish like puffers, leaf fish, killies and small cichlids.
“They shared their tank with some Indonesian floating frogs (or Puddle frogs) Occidozyga lima, which I also wanted to move on to a larger setting. Luckily, their areas of distribution overlap among the slow-moving forest streams of Borneo.
“So that was my start point.
“Because the tank I intended to use would be open-topped, I opted for a low water level — there would be less chance of me finding frogs crisped on the carpet one morning. It also allowed me to plan for a world of mosses, ferns and some classic aquarium plants growing just above the water.
“Borneo stream biotopes have low equipment demands. Recreating a shady habitat means a standard internal, T8 light or an inexpensive LED unit and a conventional heaterstat will suffice. My light unit is a low-power Arcadia stretch LED which is ample for basic plant growth.
“Vegetation is quite sparse, and made up of slow growing, low energy species so additional CO2 isn’t essential and liquid fertilisers can be basic and dosed lightly. Substrate fertilisers are worth using, holding adequate nutrients to last a long time.
“My tank is drilled to discretely incorporate an external filter; there is no other piece of equipment I like more to tidy up a tank (unless it’s an external filter with an integrated heater – even better!)
Wall of plants
“Decor in my tank is a dedicated affair. Early on, a doubting voice popped into my head: “If this doesn’t work it’s going to be hell getting it back to clean glass!” A deep breath later, and I’m opening a second can of expanding foam.
“I’m an aquarist at heart, but I work on a site that also deals with amphibians and reptiles. Though I expected to be enchanted by frogs and lizards, in the event I was overwhelmed by ‘crossover products’ like decorative sealants and mist makers. Each marked a new possibility for my fish tanks!
“I used expanding foam on the plant wall above the tank and was happy about using it in the tank. When I discovered a sealing resin and a range of colouring powders marketed for amphibians, I knew the destiny of my new set-up.
“Straight from the tin, the resin was a pale, stone grey — ideal for sealing the lower level where the substrate blends into the background. To blend further I used a heavy coating of resin and covered it with sand and fine gravel, which stuck as it dried. Once happy with the substrate level I added a brown colouring powder to the resin and completed the rest, this time adding coconut fibres instead of sand for texture and realism.
“When the resin dried, I tidied any excess from the glass and the wood and put down the substrate. I used Seachem Flourish gravel as a substrate fertiliser covered initially with coarse German quartz gravel, then fine 1mm quartz gravel in patches, topped off with JBL Sansibar river sand, a natural-looking substrate that tends not to compact as easily as other sands. Leaf litter added the finishing touch.
“A Borneo biotope has a limited plant selection available. To start simply, Cryptocoryne bullosa is easy to get hold of, but how natural the obtainable strain is may be questionable. Still, it’s a lovely plant to grow above or below the water line.
“The once scarce Bucephalandra motleyana mostly grows above the water, clinging to stream-side boulders and creeping up muddy banks. Bucephalandra species are widely available now but there are so many variants that if you want to stay true to the regional biotope it may take some searching.
“Then there are species you just will not come across in your local fish shop. Luckily I have a contact, Luke Landsburgh from Bucephalandra UK, who was able to supply me with a natural form of Cryptocoryne bullosa, with a much more prominent ‘hammered’ effect to the leaf compared to my shop bought plants. He also supplied Barclaya motleyi, a dark lily-like plant which is yet to show strong growth, Java fern ‘Narrow’, Aridarium to grow on the ‘bank’ and some Bucephalandra, all of which come from Borneo.
Choosing the right fish
“Though Redline rasbora and Puddle frogs were the original inspiration for this tank, I also already had three Khuli loach, so these joined the mix.
“I added a common Bornean species — the ill-named Pentazona barb — to act as a dither fish and inspire confidence in the rasbora. Pretty much all commercially available ‘Pentazona’ are in fact the more prevalent Desmopuntius hexazona, as mine are. Geographically, they perfectly suit the location of this biotope and they have also encouraged the Redlines to be more outgoing.
“Then there is the fish that really hits the target; the Forest halfbeak. Hemirhamphodon pogonognathus is a full-on predator by design. From its pike-like fin placement to its super-sensory beak detecting the smallest of surface movements, it is fully equipped to feed on flies, gnats, beetles and anything else that falls on to the surface. At 10cm they can threaten small fish even though their attention is focused on the surface, but if they can’t swallow them there’s no danger. They’re unaggressive toward other fish and only slightly so between conspecifics.
“There’s also a pair of Betta albimarginata, which appeal to my love of cryptic fish. I can search for them for some time without a sniff, then all of a sudden they’re right in the middle of the tank, bold as brass before they are gone again. I had to slightly bend the rigidity of my location for these as they live quite a few miles to the west of where I had set the biotope.
“So, though I may never reach Borneo in person, there a part of my imagination which has come to life and now sits in my living room. It’s not an active, buzzing set-up at all, but a peaceful, tranquil tank that you can lose yourself in for a little while every evening.”
Meet the aquarist
Name: Steven Baker.
Location: Cambridge, England.
Occupation: Aquatic retail assistant and also building Cambridge Aquatics as a maintenance service for tanks and ponds.
Time in the hobby: 27 years.
Favourite fish: Freshwater puffers.
Most ever spent on a fish: £175 on a Koi.
Dream tank: A converted indoor swimming pool with sunken logs, lilies and waterside planting. Fish would include a Mbu puffer, a group of Mastacembelus eels (whichever best suit the range of the puffer) and some mid-sized African catfish.
Redline rasbora, Rasbora pauciperforata
Clown rasbora, Rasbora kalochroma
Pentazona barb, Desmopuntius hexazona
Kuhli loach, Acanthopthalmus semicinctus
Forest halfbeak, Hemirhamphodon pogonognathus
Tank: 120 x 45 x 38cm/48 x 18 x 15in.
Filter: Aquamanta EFX400 external canister.
Heating: 200W in-line Hydor external heater.
Lighting: Arcadia Stretch LED on the tank. Fluval Plant LED on the wall.
Quick fire questions
How long did the project take?
Three months of research and planning. About 12–15 hours to construct over three days. It’s now just over seven months old.
What was the approximate cost?
The display of the plant wall and the tank display with all the materials, wood, roots, substrate and so on came to £200, give or take a little. The tank and equipment was purchased bit-by-bit and all some time ago.
A ballpark figure overall would be £550 if I think quickly. I don’t want to think for any longer as it probably cost more. I’d have to guess at the cost of fish and plants — maybe £85 for livestock and a similar amount on the plants.
Which aspect took the longest?
Building up a reasonable selection of plants.
How is the plant rack constructed? How is it supplied with water?
It’s built on a background made from an old shop shelving unit (a peg panel, from which you’d normally have hooks jutting out). Guttering was attached, with drainage pipes and airline to feed water through an airline splitter. A small pump in the tank waters it all for just one minute once a day thanks to a digital plug timer.
What filter media do you use?
Three stages of foam and a mixture of different biomedia collected over the years. There’s definitely some Eheim ehfisubstrat and Fluval Biomax in there.
How do you keep the water stained and acidic?
I add Catappa and Oak leaves regularly but mostly I boil up Alder cones to make my own blackwater extract.
What are the water parameters?
Temperature is 25.5°C, pH 6.2, KH 5, GH 10.
How often do you test?
I test a lot in the early stages to get to know the tank. For the first three months, I tested weekly but I have found this set-up to be quite stable. I now check hardness and acidity one a month.
Do you favour a fish-in or a fishless cycle?
I’ve had fish tanks solidly for many years so I have the beauty of mature filter media on hand. For anyone without this available I definitely recommend fishless cycling. It’s a good way to get used to tank maturation and using test kits without harming fish through innocent enthusiasm.
What’s your advice to anyone who’d like a similar set-up?
If you are at all crafty or artistic it’s not hard. If you struggle with model making or flat packed furniture, then maybe you should call in a mate!
Rare catfish, a scratch built fish house, and a holotype preserved in acetone – just a few things you’ll find in one of the UK’s top fish collections.
WORDS: NATHAN HILL AND MARK WALTERS
Meet the fishkeeper
Name: Mark Walters.
Occupation: Project manager.
Time keeping fish: 35 years.
Number of tanks: 40.
Most spent on a fish: £195 each for Hypancistrus zebra.
Mark Walters is a name recognised by anyone immersed in the aquarium hobby. He’s Chairman of the Catfish Study Group (CSG), and among his many breeding accolades you’ll find rare Scleromystax and Loricariids.
While there’s no such thing as a bad reader visit, we just know that some are going to truly shine, and as well as being an exceptional fishkeeper, Mark also has a wonderful openness and lucidity that’s as rare as it is charming.
So, without any further amble from me, here’s more of the man, the method, and indeed the fish behind the CSG’s top spot…
As hobbyists go, you’ve got quite the pedigree with an M.Sc. in Aquatic Biology. Was that something that came before the hobby, or was it a result of existing fish love?
I kept various pets as a youngster and always had a keen interest in the natural world, but it was a surprise Christmas present of a three-foot tank from my parents that really took the hobby off. Not an empty tank and equipment from a pet shop – a fully stocked aquarium from an ad in the local press, which was carried half-filled up the stairs and into my bedroom for Christmas morning!
I spent the next few months learning about the fish in the tank and regularly discovering new ones as they emerged as fry from the substrate! After this I was hooked and at 13 I was working in my first job at a local fish shop, had joined an aquarium society and took a much greater interest in science at school. This led to a more serious academic pursuit through degrees at University and my first ‘real’ job as a Fisheries Scientist.
Of all the fish you could have gotten involved with, why catfish? And why Scleromystax and suckermouths in particular?
I remember as a young fishkeeper absorbing as much information as I could, mainly through very old aquatic books and bundles of aquatic magazines picked up at aquatic club sales. I also subscribed to PFK in the early 80s and recall being mesmerised by an article by a well-known north western aquarist who had kept and bred the bearded cory we now know as Scleromystax barbatus. Back in the day, they were unavailable to the average fishkeeper and it wasn’t until the mid ’90s during a resurgence in my fishkeeping that I picked up a group. They definitely were the catalyst for my love of catfish, and managing to spawn them just increased my desire to find out more about Corydoradinae and other cats.
Joining the Catfish Study Group (CSG) in 2005 opened the next chapter in my fishkeeping life and species became available that I’d only read about, through their availability at club auctions from experienced breeders. I quickly started collecting groups of Corydoras, which seemed to respond to my care and before long had spawned a few dozen species. During this time I realised that there were plenty more species of my beloved Scleromystax and started to collect groups through auctions and specialist shops. Of the 13 known species, I’ve kept nine and bred eight. I still have barbatus in my tanks plus a very special species — CW038, which I first wrote about in PFK back in 2008.
My move to Loricariidae came about through the CSG breeders award programme, and my desire to breed more and more species. After knocking off 50-odd cory species I needed to move onto different genera to get the necessary points, so I bred a few woodcats and moved to suckermouth catfish. I got as far as I could with the breeders award programme but haven’t really stopped and have now bred over 20 species of suckermouth catfish from nine genera. I still keep plenty of corys though!
Scleromystax are beautiful – why don’t we see more of them available in stores?
Many of the most desirable Scleromystax originate from critically threatened habitats in south west Brazil. Some may even be extinct now. Imports of CW038, C112, C113, and CW042 haven’t been seen for over ten years. It is reported that the occurrence of S. barbatus is now very restricted due to pollution and habitat destruction, which makes them scarce and expensive when imported. It’s important that hobbyists continue to breed some of these species, and make them more available; it’s equally important for shops to support local breeders and not rely on wild caught fish as the sole source of such desirable species.
Where do you source yours?
My groups of Scleromystax come from a variety of sources, including other hobbyists in the UK and abroad, as well as specialist retailers.
What’s the trick to spawning them?
Typically, Scleromystax enjoy cooler waters than most tropical fish. In captivity, tank temperatures tend to creep back up again, especially in a fish house, so the best trigger for spawning is a large water change with cooler water, simulating a rainy season. Good food is also important, with plenty of live or frozen foods in their diet. Most of my breeding fish have their own species tanks, reducing competition from other species and minimising stress on the fish I want to breed.
Which other cats should more people be breeding?
Lots of the fish we’re used to seeing in shops are becoming more restricted due to export bans from their native countries. Species we may not see imported from the wild in the future include Leopard frog plecos, Peckoltia compta; Zebra plecos, Hypancistrus zebra, and many of the black and white striped Loricariidae of the Xingu and Tapajos Rivers of Brazil. These are reasonably easy to breed and demand will be high in the future.
There are also a few Corydoras and, of course, Scleromystax that people could try to maintain — one beautiful cory is the recently described C. eversi, named after famed German aquarist Hans Georg Evers. Hans brought the first specimens into Europe over ten years ago, and all the fish available originate from this import. It’s unlikely the fish remains in the wild but it’s great that it has been described to science and is still in existence in aquariums, at least.
What are the material and intellectual challenges of catfish keeping?
For me, the greatest challenge is finding time to devote to fish breeding. I have a busy job, a young family, and other outside commitments. I also devote a lot of time to the Catfish Study Group as Chairman, Convention Manager and a host of other responsibilities. It’s important to me to share the knowledge, spread the hobby as wide as possible and bring new people into the fishkeeping family, especially young people. My hobby gave me a fantastic grounding in science and DIY and eventually led to a career. I hope others can experience the rewards.
And what are those rewards?
With so many catfish to choose from, I’ve been lucky enough to breed a few ‘world-firsts’ and written loads of articles for the CSG Journal and other publications, which gives me a lot of kudos. The main rewards though are the fantastic people in the hobby, many of whom I regard as close friends. Through social media, the hobby transcends international borders and social conventions, such that hobbyists can communicate directly with professional ichthyologists around the world, sharing their experiences and learning from each other.
What’s the fish you want but can’t get?
There are a couple of Scleromystax species, which although reasonably common haven’t been imported yet. Similarly there are a few Corydoras species which seem to only find their way to Japan.
What’s the most difficult fish you’ve ever spawned successfully?
I managed to breed one of the cactus plec species a few years ago and was successful in raising a few hundred youngsters from five or six spawnings. The experience gave me the chance to work out the best way to raise the fry, and some of the pitfalls of working with quite an aggressive species of Loricariid. Pseudacanthicus have quite serious dentition and the male will routinely rough-up the female during spawning and even youngsters will bite chunks out of each other during their raising!
What’s the rarest?
I came across a pair of Scleromystax at Pier Aquatics in Wigan back in 2008. They had been imported with a bigger group, but the rest hadn’t survived. I kept them and recorded their development and brought them along to a CSG Convention where they were identified as a new species — CW042. These were the only known examples of the species imported. Unfortunately, straight after their first spawning, the male died and the eggs failed. The species hasn’t been seen since.
Where do you think the greatest breeding advances are being made?
The future of some species probably rests with commercial fish farms in South East Asia, rather than amateur fish tanks. Literally thousands of Zebra plecs are now being produced every week in Indonesia, for export around the world. The same fish farms have expanded to breed other rare plecos including Hypancistrus L174. It was good to meet up with some of the biggest commercial zebra producers, when I went to the L-Welse event in Germany in 2015, it changed my perception of South East Asian aquatic fish production.
What do you think the best conservation approaches are for wild fish?
I’m afraid it’s probably too late for many species impacted by habitat destruction, pollution and hydro-electric dams. The best we can do is maintain what we have in the best environments possible, and try to breed them.
What are the greatest perils for an aspiring breeder?
Many people start fish breeding thinking they will make a fortune, then drop out of the hobby after a year when they realise it’s not so easy! I probably make about enough to pay the electricity bills, from sales of my baby fish. I’m never going to retire on the proceeds!
All fish are different, we know, but what are your bare essentials for successful catfish breeding?
My top tips are single species tanks, strong flow, the correct temperature, the best food and patience. Many of my fish have been sat in their tanks for years without any obvious signs of spawning, but they often surprise you when you least expect it!
What’s the plan for all these Spatuloricaria fry you’re rearing?
I was lucky enough to have these amazing giant whiptails spawn for me, on two occasions now. Most recently over 400 eggs were successfully brooded by the male, through to hatching. The trouble is they will take a good year before they are big enough to transport, let alone move to other fishkeepers’ tanks, with the added complication that they are extremely skittish. I may just end up with a 100 gal tank full of giant whiptails!
If you weren’t keeping catfish, what would be your next choice?
I’d actually like to keep more livebearing fish, as dither fish in my tanks. The trouble is I use only rainwater during water changes which makes my water too soft for most. That’s why I have a few chalk pebbles in most of my tanks to prevent pH crashes. Having said that, I have a plague of Endlers livebearers through most of my tank systems, which act as useful canaries in case water conditions are less than ideal.
How much maintenance does your fish house require? Are you a daily, weekly or monthly kind of aquarist?
I’m a ‘do as much as I can’ kind of aquarist. If I have an easy month, I will keep up regular water changes and my fish will reward me with spawns. If I have a hectic month, then the water changes go on hold and my fish suffer a ‘dry’ season!
The worst times for me are if we go away on holiday — fry don’t get fed, eggs don’t get harvested and I spend most of my time on the beach fretting about my sump tanks running dry!
Being the chairman of the Catfish Study Group, running a fish house and working a full time job must make some demands on your personal life. How do you juggle the fish world/rest of the world balance?
Fishkeeping is important to me, but not at the expense of my family. I’ve seen lots of aquarists for whom the hobby has tipped too far in one direction and their home lives have suffered with terrible consequences. I used to go to fish shows most weekends and spend a couple of hours a night in the fish house but as my kids grew up and work pressure increased I eased off some of those activities and automated some of the fish house chores. The increase in use of social media has actually made the CSG management much easier in recent years, although as Chairman, Convention Manager and Auctioneer at club events there is still plenty of demand on my time. Thankfully, I have a great committee at the CSG who assist with the running of the club, producing a world-class Journal and the best Catfish Convention in the world (in my biased opinion)!
Talk us through the filtration in your fish house.
In recent years I’ve actually reduced the number of tanks in my fish house from 50-odd down to 30-odd, but the volume of water has increased! The consequence is three centralised systems, each filtered through a trickle filter and sump which pumps water back to the tanks within that system. It helps reduce water change time, keeps tanks more balanced and reduces power consumption. The disadvantage is the increased potential for disease to spread through each system, although I’ve also installed UV sterilisers to kill any nasties.
Do you need to alter your water chemistry for the fish you keep?
I used to test my water weekly. I can’t remember the last time I checked, or even where the nearest thermometer is! I assume from the rainwater changes, copious bogwood and associated brown water, that my fish are swimming in perfect Amazonian conditions!
What’s the deal with the preserved fish on the shelf?
Actually, it started with the death of the Scleromystax CW042 I mentioned earlier. Being the only known specimen, I thought it my duty to preserve it, in case I met a Corydoradinae scientist who might like to study it. I did actually take a DNA sample for sequencing which has been used to assign the species in the Corydoradinae ‘tree’, so its death wasn’t in total vain! To preserve it I needed to buy some acetone, so a beauty technician friend got me 5 l of nail polish remover (which is basically acetone). Of course I didn’t need that much, but since have preserved interesting specimens using jars from a popular brand of coffee!
What’s currently at the top of your fish literature reading list?
The most thumbed book on my desk is Ingo Seidel’s Back to Nature guide to L-Catfishes. It’s a must-have for any keeper of plecos.
Are you a lumper or a splitter?
Catfish present some of the most interesting families of vertebrates on the planet for evolutionary biologists, which means we are lucky to see lots of scientific research and descriptions of our favourite fish. It’s the subtle differences between seemingly similar fish which add an extra dimension to the hobby once you’ve worked out the difference between a Corydoras napoensis and a Corydoras bilineatus.
Corys are a case in point, with research due to split the group into many more genera, based on relatively subtle morphology. I’m all for it!
Do you try to replicate seasonality?
Only in so much as it gets a bit colder and darker in my fish house during winter! I should try even harder to trigger some of my fish to spawn, but I don’t have the time, or enough rainwater!
Biggest fishy disaster?
I had a bad case of white spot through one of my centralised systems a few years ago which wiped out some of my favourite fish and knocked back my breeding efforts by about four years. Since then, I’ve installed UV and rigorously quarantine new fish. Plus I now know how to treat whitespot!
Best homemade piece of kit you’ve ever made?
I’m really pleased with my automatic top-up system on my sumps. After drilling the glass, I installed mini cistern-filling devices to each tank linked to a header tank — the same as a ball-cock in a toilet cistern. It has made holidays slightly more bearable!
At a guess, how much do you think your fish house cost?
I only really paid for the construction of the building and insulation materials,
which cost around £6k. After that it was salvaged wood for stands, DIY fibreglassing of walls and ceiling, second hand tanks and DIY plumbing.
Tell me three bits of essential fish house kit you’d not want to be without.
Drinks crate – doubles as a stool and a seat; freezer – I keep all my dried foods in the freezer, keeping them fresh, plus all manner of frozen mussels, shrimps, runner beans etc. Radio – tuned into Radio 5 Live so I can listen to the match while doing my water changes!
Kev Green doesn’t do small. When he wanted the ultimate Koi pond, he built the ultimate Koi pond.
WORDS: NATHAN HILL
If you want to see an example of polarisation in aquatics, look outdoors, to the ponds. There was a time when ponds varied wildly, in size and quality. There were the tiny micro-ponds, barely more than glorified puddles, through small medium and large efforts, to customised, intensely-planned domestic oceans.
Somewhere along the way, much of the middle ground has eroded. Primarily, many new ponds now are tiny, more water features than homes for fish, with token species like Shubunkins added as an afterthought, doomed to while away their days until they eventually get plucked by a roaming cat.
At the other end, the large ponds remain. Because big ponds require big filtration, there has always been big money involved. Big money means R&D budgets, technological advances and progress. Visit a large set-up now and you’ll be amazed at how far things have come.
That’s how I felt when I visited Kev Green’s Yorkshire home. Set in modest surroundings, Kev has built himself little short of a swimming pool. At six and a half feet deep, and containing 11,800 gal, this is one of the bigger hand-made pools you’ll come across. Putting things into perspective, that’s 54,000 l — 54 tonnes — of water.
The pool has been in place for 13 years, the culmination of various evolutionary steps. Once upon a time, Kev built a pond, and tore it down on the same day to make something bigger.
But it’s not just the pond that makes the set up so exceptional. The filter has a custom built house of its own. The filter house contains yet another pond; a quarantine set- up that’s still bigger than most peoples’ ‘main’ ponds. There’s a whole Koi culture going on the moment you step into Kev’s garden, from the Bonsai trees that surround it, to the simple Koi posters and Koi shaped clocks on the wall.
Then there are the fish. Kev was reluctant to give me hard numbers, but what I did wangle out of him was eye-opening. Out of courtesy, I’m not giving you a value, but it turns out that an 80cm/32in, top grade, Japanese imported Koi is a bit pricier than I’d imagined it to be.
It was only when Kev’s son, Aidan, came out to handfeed some of the fish that the sense of scale really hit home. Koi have a carp ancestry but looking at the beasts swimming around this Yorkshire garden, you’re inclined to wonder if any Whale shark genes have slipped in along the line…
What’s the appeal of Koi ponds over aquaria for you?
Koi ponds are much more relaxing and the fish themselves are just majestic things to watch. In the open-air atmosphere of the garden it all makes for very laid back viewing. On the downside, keeping Koi does soon become very addictive and costly…
What was the most difficult part about building your pond?
The manual labour was exhausting. It was dug by hand so all soil had to be moved by wheelbarrow around the house and into skips out front.
What filtration do you use?
To start with, there are two aerated bottom drains, one side drain and surface skimmer acting as the exit points for pond water. All of these feed into a ProfiDrum Eco 65 drum filter. From here there are two pumps — the first is a FlowFriend model which feeds into the tops of two 1.5m long, four-tier double bakki showers filled with Bacteria House Media (BHM).
The water then runs through one of four separate channels. One of these diverts through a 1500mm long, 400mm wide, 800mm high stainless steel tank which utilises a 130 lpm (litres per minute) air pump to relentlessly churn over more than 300 l of Kaldnes K1 biomedia.
A second pump is a Blue Eco which pushes water through a 108W Bio UV 40, followed by a 19.5kW heating pump unit. It then travels back to the pond and is delivered through a combination of one return and a waterfall. On each of the bottom drains there’s an airstone powered by a 60 lpm blower.
For someone who doesn’t know, how does a bakki shower work?
The media in a bakki shower is BHM; a highly porous, intense heat-treated man-made material. It has an incredible surface area to volume ratio that both aerobic and anaerobic bacteria can live in. Because it can cater for both, this type of media also helps reduce nitrate as well as ammonia and nitrites. The action of the water crashing through the four layers of media — the underlying design of a bakki shower — in the four-tier shower helps to ‘gas off’ harmful compounds as well as aerating water.
What kind of maintenance does the filtration need?
There’s hardly any maintenance at all. The skimmer filter grid requires a regular clear out, and probably once a week I’ll give the drainage pipes a powerful flush from the drum filter. Approximately every six months I’ll clean the filter screen on the drum filter with acid, and when moss builds up too much and starts to choke the waterfall I’ll clear it off. That’s about it.
How do you go about water changing something of this size?
Water changing is always ongoing. There’s a constant trickle of inflow which overflows waste water to a built-in drain.
How do you go about health checking the fish?
Health checks are something I try and perform regularly. Visually checking over the fish is probably the most important task, and I can usually tell if a problem is looming. Visual checks let me see if any fish have physically damaged themselves, and the viewing window is great for facilitating this.
If I suspect parasites or just want peace of mind, I’ll carry out some skin scrapes and look under a microscope to see what’s there. Any parasite can be an indication of trouble.
In the event of a problem, what are your preferred medications? Do you rate salt as a pond treatment?
There are numerous treatment options, pending the problem being addressed. I use Chloramine T for any bad bacterial outbreaks, as well as Colombo’s Alparex for parasite and fungal issues.
Colombo’s FMC-50 is my choice against white spot and as a tonic, I love salt. Salt helps Koi to recovery in many ways. Acriflavine or Potassium Permanganate works well against Costia or Trichodina, and many more. Antibiotics may be needed for some issues, but it’s a contentious subject as what might work for one aquarist won’t necessarily work for everyone.
Do you regulate the pond temperature? How important is it to avoid fluctuations?
I always regulate the temperature at those times of year that it’s warming or cooling. I believe a stable temperature is preferred by the Koi, and in winter I’ll not let the pond drop down below 12°C/54°F.
What’s the illness you fear the most?
The worst illness I fear is the same I think that all Koi keepers fear — KHV (or Cyprinid herpesvirus, CyHV-3)
How old is your oldest fish?
The oldest Koi I have is now 15 years old, but I do have a Mirror carp which is now in excess of 20 years.
To our eyes, your selection is very traditional. Do you have particular varieties that you rally to?
The collection is mostly Gosanke oriented, but with plenty of Ogons too. A pleasant variety of colours is the only goal I have, really.
Do you just collect Koi, or do you ever sell any on as well?
I’m always buying in new Koi and selling others on. I also like to grow some on in my quarantine facility, to maybe get the occasional nice one.
Is Japan still ‘the’ place for Koi?
In my mind Japan is way ahead of any other country in terms of Koi quality, although you will always get the odd exception out there. A high-end Koi is determined by many factors, including but not limited to age, size, adeptness of the breeder involved, and more. The main criteria to look for are skin quality, coloration, body shape, scalation and pattern.
What food do your fish get, and at what frequency? Do you change the foods throughout the year to cater for growth?
Throughout winter my Koi get a mixture of off-the-shelf wheatgearm, staple and health foods, but with treats like pearl barley and mussels thrown in.
Through the summer I’m interested in growth and colour-enhancing foods, but again with treats like pearl barley, mussels, lettuce, maggots, and silkworm pupae.
The food may vary pending requirements — specifically, if there’s a show coming up, or if I identify a health issue.
What size is your quarantine facility?
My quarantine tank (which sits in a purpose built ‘Koi house’) is 7250 l/1600 gal and filtered just like the main pond, using a drum filter, bakki shower, UV, and heat pump.
How I quarantine any new arrivals depends on their origins — whether they’ve come from Japan, a UK-based dealer or a private pond. If I do need to quarantine a fish, then it’ll receive a course of treatments, and I’ll elevate temperatures for four to six weeks while it undergoes observation.
What’s the biggest mistake made by newcomers to the Koi scene?
That’s easy: inadequate filtration and poor circulation.
If you could go back and do one thing differently with your pond, what would it be?
Ha! I guess I’d build in more windows, but if I could go back now I’d probably not keep fish at all and have all the money to spend instead!
Meet the aquarist
Name: Kev Green.
Occupation: Plumber, tiler and kitchen fitter.
Time in the hobby: I’ve been keeping Koi for 27 years, but I’ve had some form of fish around since I was 12.
Favourite fish: The Tancho has always been my favourite fish, but I have a thing for large Koi.
Dream fish: My dream would be to own a Koi in excess of 110cm/44in long.
Number of Koi in the main pond: 44.
Three bits of kit Kev wouldn’t be without: Drum filter, good Koi net, microscope.
Amount of salt used per dose: About 167kg.
Favourite pond gear brand: ProfiDrum.
Number of Koi nets: 11, plus handling socks and bowls.
See the video!
Check out more of Kev's fish below...
Curious shapes can make for amazing projects, as one Cambridge-based aquarist discovered. Here’s how he made the most of an unheated, novel set up…
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY: TAI STRIETMAN
Not so long ago, I was at university, where I spent a lot of time ignoring my reading lists on Latin American politics, the social legacy of the civil war in El Salvador and the informal market economy of Brazil, and instead immersed myself into the aquatic works of Peter W. Scott, J. Tullock, Takashi Amano, Dr. Axelrod, and of course Practical Fishkeeping!
At that time, I had neither the money nor space for a big planted tank. My flatmates weren’t keen on additional energy bills and the market for nano tanks hadn’t become as developed as it is now. But then I came across an article by George Farmer, showcasing a simple but beautiful White Cloud Mountain minnow, Tanichthys albonubes, biotope.
I immediately set about recreating his idea, and made several visits to my local fish shop, the venerable Arundel Aviaries & Fisheries Ltd. Despite the rows of colourful tanks full of plants, mosses and exotic fish, I purchased a straightforward 60 l/13 gal tank kit plus external filter, sand and gravel. I collected river pebbles from the Hampshire countryside and after cycling the tank, I bought ten White Clouds. It was a joy to watch them play in the flow and it gave me the fish fix I needed to get through university.
Several years and many tanks, biotopes and experimental set-ups later, I acquired a secondhand tank from a neighbour at home in Cambridge. It had a volume of 225 l/50 gal, was just over 240cm/8ft long, but only 30cm/12in high and wide.
Choosing the stock
In went play sand, gravel and river stones, along with circulation pumps, air pumps and the hardy plant, Sagittaria subulata. A population of Amano shrimp was added to the tank, happy to browse on the forming algae, and I added a school of Pearl danios, Brachydanio albolineata. Later, they were joined by eight juvenile Giant danios, Devario aequipinnatus. The tank really came into its own at that point; the fish schooled, swarmed and swayed in the current, they danced through the streams of bubbles and appeared very happy and healthy.
After waiting for the rocks to become fully smothered in algae I added three Borneo hillstream loaches, Gastromyzon ctenocephalus and a few weeks later I made a visit to Kesgrave Tropicals near Ipswich, where I acquired another three, plus six Vietnamese/Goldring hillstream loaches, Sewellia lineolata. I also acquired six gobies, listed as Rhinogobius wui but which may have been a mix of species of the R. duospilis complex.
The danios provided constant movement, the loaches would glide over the rocks and engage occasional disputes over who got to sit on which pebble, and the gobies provided endless interest, flitting about the tank, displaying to each other. During feeding times, they would race up to tear chunks out of frozen foods, more than holding their own with the danios. The tank was lively, with activity at all levels and I could sit for hours, observing the fish behaving as they would in their natural environment. Maintenance was straightforward. Plenty of algae was encouraged to grow on the rocks and back pane of the tank, and I cleaned only the front, although I was not too vigorous, so as to give the loaches a chance to graze first.
Water changes were 10% weekly and a large Aquamanta 600 external filter provided a flow rate of 2200 l per hour. My local tapwater is hard, about 7.5pH, perfect for the species I was keeping. All Pond Solution circulation pumps at each end of the tank (including a 12,000 lph pump) dispersed bubbles from a TetraTec 400 air pump and ensured there were no dead spots within the tank. Apart from water changes, the only regular job was to syphon the top layer of sand and remove any detritus, such as leaves, that might be clinging to the circulation pumps.
Take the ‘rapids’ approach
A number of rapids-style biotopes can be recreated, from Central African rapids for Blockhead cichlids (though heated), to Burmese mountain streams for danios and loaches and even Andean whitewater set-ups for several Loricarid species. Tanks don’t need to be huge, lighting doesn’t need to be too strong without plants (though it promotes algae and biofilm growth) and simple LEDs provide fantastic rippling effects in the water movement. However, flow and oxygenation are very important.
Some aquarists may want to try to build a river manifold, which is an excellent way of circulating water the length of the tank. These can be built relatively cheaply from PVC piping, with the main expense being the powerheads required. In these difficult financial times, with high student fees and rising living costs, the unheated or temperate aquarium can provide a cost efficient, yet fascinating project, either as a first time tank for a beginner, or for a more experienced hobbyist. You can also go the other way and invest in a Maxspect Gyre if you want to create a real torrent!
Although a mid-sized system and unusually shaped, it was the simplest tank I have set up since that little 60 l aquarium in my room at university and I would strongly encourage every aquarist to give an unheated aquarium a go. There are plenty of loach and goby species out there, along with White Clouds, Shiners, danios (including the beautiful Kerri and Choprae danios), barbs and even shrimp suitable for cooler water.
A number of tetras such as those from the Aphyocharax and Hyphessobrycon families will appreciate good flow and cool water too, along with interesting cool-water catfish such as Scleromystax species, so you can still get your South American fix! It was George Farmer’s simple little biotope that first got me excited about cool water and it took the advice of a fish-enthusiast friend to (eventually!) convince me. But now, as I sit back and look at over my own eight feet of mountain stream, I wonder how I could ever have done it differently.
See a video of this set-up below
African cichlid fan, Scott Lynch, explains why his passion is Malawis and how this magnificent display tank was set up.
WORDS, PHOTOGRAPHY AND VIDEO: GEORGE FARMER
I contacted Scott Lynch a few months ago to discuss a project involving a 180cm/6ft aquascape for African cichlids. Soon I was gathering all the necessary hardscaping materials including over a quarter ton of rock and specialist gravel. I’d never created an aquascape for Malawi cichlids before, so I was excited to work on something new using a large amount of rocks.
After the set-up had been up and running for a while, I re-visited the tank, now complete with fish, and I have to say it’s the most impressive aquarium of its type I’ve ever seen (scroll down for the video and see for yourself).
I spoke to Scott about his passion and his amazing set-up.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got into African cichlids?
My dad has been keeping fish for as long as I can remember, the ones that always stood out to me were African cichlids. At the age of eight I set-up my own tank. I went through all the usual standard tropical species such as guppies and tetras but nothing attracted me like African cichlids. I was very lucky that my dad enjoyed fish as much as I did and would often tag along to the local aquatic shops to use my pocket money to purchase fish for my tank. In the early years there wasn’t as much of a choice of African cichlids as there is now. I remember fish such as what are now known as Melanochromis auratus, Pseudotropheus elongatus ornatus and Labidichromis joanjonsonae being particular favourites of mine.
One of the most fascinating aspects of African cichlids that stood out for me was their behaviour and activity, they are constantly on the move or digging their next cave and trying to attract a female into it. As a youngster I loved to watch females mouth brood their young and still find it fascinating to this day to watch a female release young from her mouth and then take them back in unharmed in the presence of danger.
Unfortunately, when I joined the RAF I was forced to take a short spell away from fishkeeping but as soon as I was able to set a tank back up I was straight back to my love of African cichlids. One of the great things I’m finding now is passing that passion for fish on to my children that are of a similar age to when I first started getting into fish and seeing that cycle repeat itself. In recent years my dad’s love of African cichlids has turned into a business for him. He now runs one of the biggest African cichlid specialist businesses in the UK. Fortunately for me I now get the opportunity to browse 60 tanks of some of the rarest fish in the country and like to try and help out down at the fish houses as much as I can, work allowing.
One of my favourite aspects of helping is opening the boxes of fish that have come directly from Lake Malawi — it’s so exciting to see all the rare and wonderful treats that sometimes only days earlier were swimming around in the great lake. My ultimate dream that I hope to fulfil soon is to visit the lake and dive with the fishes at all the various locations across the lake.
The set-up looks very impressive. Can you go through the kit specifications?
Many hours of planning have gone into this tank, I wanted the tank to tick as many boxes as possible. I believe you should give African cichlids as much water volume as you can so I opted to go for a 180cm/6ft tank. I chose a rimless braceless tank to give that clean, open look. I envisaged a ’scape that would rise above the water line and give extra depth and perspective to the tank — to make this possible I lowered the height from the standard 60cm/24in to a 50cm/20in. Fortunately, because the steel stand is just short of 120cm/4ft high it brings the tank to an eye line where you get a view through the aquarium and over the top without adjusting your view too much.
The tank’s full specifications are 15mm polished glass with clear silicone and fitted with two Ultra Reef overflows and drains, the dimensions are 180 x 50 x 60cm/72 x 20 x 24in. The tank was made for me by Selwyn Lloyd. The Zetlight UFOs from TMC are lights that are stylish, very cost effective, give you a full spectrum and the ability to manipulate the lighting cycles throughout the day to give you a true replication of their natural environment from dawn until dusk. At 90W the lights have given me tremendous algae growth which for African cichlids is paramount to supplement their diet and promote grazing.
The custom stand was made in partnership with Nick Chan from Aquarium Cabinet Solutions. The quality and finish is top quality. I’m currently running a 90cm/3ft sump on the system. The first chamber is filled with sponge for mechanical filtration, the second is running as a refugium with various fast growing plants and the final chamber has Alfagrog and polishing media. My return pump is a Jecod 6000 l to provide as much flow as possible through the Ultra Reef drain and returns.
Does the rock layout have an influence on fish behaviour?
Rockwork is very important in an African cichlid tank, especially for mbuna. It is my belief that you should try and produce as much height as you can whilst also creating caves, but you can reduce this when it comes to Haps and Peacocks, which like free swimming space. You will always get dominant males in an African cichlid tank but getting your rockwork right will help to dissolve this behaviour and give your females and sub dominant males the chance to hide or break the line of sight and distract the dominant fish from his pursuit.
Rockwork is also very important to help support the fish’s natural behaviour. Mbuna especially like to graze on the algae from the rocks to support their diet whilst the rocks also provide the perfect surface to breed for many species. I have found that many of my holding females have been more successful at holding full term in this set-up due to the fact that they are able to retreat to the rocks and stay away from the males who would usually harass them and create stress if that rock cover wasn’t there.
Through my stock selection I have created groups with heavy female numbers and this is paying off with plenty of successful breeding. Up to yet I have had holding females of Labidochromis joanjohnsonae ‘Likoma’, Tropheops makokola, Cynotilapia zebroides hongi, Labeotropheus fuelleborni ‘Katale’ and Metriaclima fainzilberi hongi so all going well. I have a trio of a rare species of Metriaclima sp. ‘Yellow tail Manda’ that I’m really hoping to have breed soon. The breeding side of the hobby and rearing the young to adulthood is very rewarding.
What are the main misconceptions about Malawi cichlids?
Most people believe that they are incredibly aggressive — there’s no doubt that they certainly do have an aggressive streak, but with the right stocking and balance of fish this can be minimised hugely. I’m not a fan of the add more fish to dissolve aggression theory, I believe that balanced stocking and correct ratios works much better — you will usually find that in overstocked tanks ultimately there will be fish that end up at the bottom of the food chain and become bullied and start to lose weight. This leads to the fish either dying through malnutrition or being an easy target for an aggressor.
A well thought out, balanced tank with reduced males and compatible species works much more successfully for me and will ultimately end with healthier fish and breeding.
Scott on his aquascape
“I knew I wanted this tank to really stick out from the rest and change perceptions whilst still representing a small piece of Lake Malawi. “We chose the grey pillar rock to give the tank a colour and texture that reflects that of some areas of the lake, there are two huge 40kg plus stones, one on each side that have really made the scape for me. The large pieces gave a strong foundation to allow the rock to break the surface of the water and provide the depth perspective I was looking for, the extra shadows that have been created are a huge bonus as well.
“The substrate is something you will very rarely see in an African cichlid tank but it has complemented the rock perfectly and the varying texture is amazing —who else can say they have algae growth on their substrate? All the substrate was provided by Dennerle — Baikal and Yukon.”
Scott’s top tips for new African cichlid keepers
- Research your stock, read about them as much as possible and look for reputable dealers who will be able to answer any other questions you may have.
- Start with good sized groups of each species — aim for between 5–10 — and try to achieve full stocking as soon as possible to reduce the stress of repeatedly adding new stock.
- Always have a spare tank available to isolate fish should they become bullied or need treatment, and ensure you have the right medications available. I’m a big fan of Waterlife products and always have Octozin, Myxazin and Protozin on hand.
- Stress management is key to successfully keeping these fish happy and healthy. Keep your water quality high with constant water parameters.
- Feed a good quality diet. I’m not a fan of changing foods. I select a good quality fine granular food with added vitamins and spirulina and that becomes the fishes’ staple diet with an addition of Mysis occasionally and maybe a stick-on grazer. Watch your fish, get a feel for their behaviour and then you can identify any issues early — the sooner you catch any problems the more likely you are to successfully treat them.
- Enjoy your fish!
How Scott’s amazing set-up came together
Follow this step-by-step guide and see how this fabulous aquascape was created.
1. The aquarium is 180 x 60 x 50cm/72 x 30 x 20in tall with a 90cm/36in sump. An initial layer of gravel is added to protect the bare glass from the heavy rocks. The colour of the gravel matches the rocks.
2. The largest rock is added with a supporting stone underneath to prevent it from toppling. The first rock acts as a base where smaller stones are placed around it to form the first of two islands.
3. A glue gun is used to fix the rocks in place to help prevent any potentially disastrous accidents involving slipping rocks. Additional smaller stones are added around the base.
4. The first island is complete. The design incorporates lots of overhangs and areas for the fish to use as territories. The point source LED lighting is effective at creating contrasting areas of shadow and light.
5. The same process is repeated to create an island on the right. The two islands form distinct areas of territory for the fish. The island is deliberately made small to prevent too much symmetry.
6. A combination of two gravels from Dennerle (Yukon and Baikal) are added. One is rounded and the other has a sharper texture. The colours suit the aquascape perfectly and the combination adds interest.
7. Water is added slowly with a colander. The dust from the gravel and rocks clouds the water. Usually I would clean the rocks and gravel but the quantities involved here made doing this impractical.
8. The remaining water is added and the filtration is turned on. The tank clears after 24 hours and Scott adds mature media and begins to stock his fish.
You don’t have to be a lifelong hobbyist to put together a great tank. We meet a relative newcomer who has a passion — and a skill — for putting together gorgeous aquascapes.
WORDS: NATHAN HILL; PHOTOGRAPHY: GEORGE FARMER
Ryan Thang To was a name I’d never heard prior to the UKAPS Aquascaping Experience back in March 2016. On that day, not only did I see his work firsthand, I even got to judge it.
Ryan was one of ten qualifiers to the UKAPS hardscaping challenge being held that day — a competition to see who could create the best ‘dry’ aquascape, without water or plants. Even early on, I lingered a little too long over his design, a manzanita wood and slate concept piece that got better every time I passed by.
Come the results, Ryan scored a gracious fifth place against some fierce and incredible high-end competitors. As I recall, I ranked him higher than that, but the weight of judging diluted my own generous score back down.
Soon after, Ryan and I hooked up on social media. I heaped compliments his way, and sent out feelers for other tanks he might have had in the house. The images that came back showed early promise. There was nothing complete at that time, nothing that warranted a journey down to his home in Milton Keynes, so we went radio silent for a while.
Cue three weeks before writing this. Ryan messages me back out of nowhere with one of the finest small ‘scapes I’ve seen in years, and a couple of calls later I’m set. With George Farmer in tow for his aquascape photography skills, I headed down for a morning of strong Chinese tea, a conservatory/greenhouse filled with Asian vegetables, and a bustling bedroom vying to be a gallery of aquaria rather than a living space.
Ryan’s tanks are good — very good. But one stands out above all others. Two-feet long, combining the soft green hues of carpeting plants with the shocking blue and red of tetra, his main ‘scape stole the show for the day. We photographed it senseless, George and I both vying for the perfect shot and clambering over each other.
I was so enamoured with it that just hours later my heart was torn apart. In true aquascaper style, Ryan allowed this tank to be king for a day. No sooner than we’d packed away our lenses and departed back to the office, he’d stripped the tank bare, fish rehoused, plants repatriated.
The space left behind now awaits a tank twice as long, maybe twice as optimistic to replace it.
I doubt this will be the last time we visit Ryan Thang To…
Meet the aquarist
Name: Ryan Thang To.
Occupation: Nail technician.
Favourite fish: Discus, Symphysodon discus.
Most spent on a fish: £100.
Favourite plant: Anubias and Bucephalandra.
Time in the hobby: Three years.
How did you get into fishkeeping?
We had fish tanks when I was a little boy, but I never got involved — I never did any water changes or maintenance chores, my dad did those. Then, three years ago I was browsing Youtube when I found a video about the Fluval Edge aquarium from Hagen, and that alone was all I needed to get me hooked. I didn't start aquascaping until a year after that, when I found the work of Takashi Amano.
What are the most tanks you’ve had running at once?
At one point I had seven tanks up and running at the same time in my room. There were discus, a wide mix of everyday tropical species, and even Malawi cichlids in there.
How small was the smallest aquascape you’ve ever put together?
That would have to be my 20 l/4.4 gal tank. It’s not realistic to aquascape that size easily, but it was a fun tank to put together.
What did you have in your first ever tank?
Ha, it was filled with bright yellow gravel, Cabomba and Vallisneria spiralis, and it had a huge treasure chest in the middle. It was quite a classic!
What’s your approach to aquascaping? Do you use high energy or low energy tanks? Or do you do something totally different?
I would recommend going for low tech, low energy tanks to start with. Many people like myself find that when you attempt your first high energy tank with something like a lush Hemianthus callitrichoides carpet, you just drive in to trouble, inviting an algae strike which causes the whole layout to fail. A low energy tank can look just as nice as a high tech one, and requires less maintenance. From there you can work your way up as and when you build up more confidence and gain more experience. Personally, I like to have both low tech and high. Mix things up and experiment, or else you risk becoming bored.
What have been the most successful plants you’ve worked with?
Oh boy, definitely my Hemianthus callitrichoides 'Cuba'. It’s a pain to grow, can fail easily, and is expensive if you mess up with it, but amazing once it’s formed a full carpet.
And the least successful?
For me, the least successful plants would be any red plants really. I can grow them but never got the intensity of colour that some other aquascapers achieve. I will get there one day, I’m sure.
What fertilisers do you favour?
I use the Tropica range of liquids, as well as the Estimative Index (EI) approach to mixing up my own liquids from powdered fertilisers.
How long does it normally take for a tank to look the way you want it to, after you have set it up?
That depends largely on the layout and what it is for. If I want a tank to grow in quickly I’ll subject it to intense, high lighting, heavy fertilisers and strong CO2. Normally that will get a tank completed from between three to six months.
Who do you consider to be influential aquascapers?
I’ve only met a few aquascapers, but I’d say that like so many, Takashi Amano would be my main influence. His archive of videos, as well as his books, give me ideas and aspirations all the time, and keeps me motivated to always try harder.
What size is the Cardinal tetra tank?
That tank is an ADA 60P, 65 l/14 gal made with low-iron, high-clarity Optiwhite glass.
What have you used in the Cardinal tetra tank for decoration?
I’ve used small twigs of Redmoor root wood to give the illusion of a tree root reaching across, and I’ve built up the rest of the display with ADA aqua soil and rocks I collected from Poland – I have no idea what these rocks are called. There are just the two species of plants in here: Dwarf hairgrass, Eleocharis parvula, and Micranthemum sp. ‘Monte Carlo’.
What was the inspiration behind the design of that tank?
Over the last two years I’ve always constructed wood-only aquascapes, so this time I thought I’d try something different. The inspiration for me here came from just finding the rocks. As soon as I had them, I had to find out what I could do with them and also discover how cool they could look underwater.
What lighting have you used?
It’s a Chihiro Aquasky LED running up to 72W of power consumption. I keep it running over the tank for seven hours a day.
Do you use carbon dioxide on this tank? I don’t see a diffuser anywhere.
I do, and I diffuse it straight into my canister filter.
Do you have any preference regarding filtration?
I’m a big Eheim fan for my filters.
I notice you use IKEA cabinets for your tanks — what do you do to strengthen them?
I use MDF wooden panes wrapped in vinyl. One full panel goes on to the back (inside the cabinet) and I also add a couple of legs inside to give it all extra support.
How much would you say it costs to put together a good aquascape like yours?
If you have cash, you can easily chalk up a shopping list in excess of £1000. But if you prefer to save some money buy a secondhand tank and stand and concentrate the core of your spending on your plants and hardscape.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of become an aquascaper?
Do your research and don’t be afraid to start experimenting. Try your hand at different layouts and look at other peoples ’scapes to draw inspiration. And never be afraid to try again and again after you fail — success is never guaranteed in aquascaping!
Having geared for a trip into Scotland, Nathan Hill couldn't pass up the opportunity to interview a man with a mission to find out all he can about catfish.
Julian Dignall is one of those lifelong hoarders of all things fishy, owning a glut of journals, papers, out-of-print books, trinkets (like the one pictured below) livestock and so much more — all legacy of true immersion in aquatics and collecting tours around the world.
Known online simply as Jools, he’s the man behind the Planet Catfish website, among others, and has invested vast amounts of time to bring his vision of global catfish appreciation to life.
Speaking candidly to the man at his Scottish home, it soon becomes clear that the real driver behind Planet catfish is the craving for knowledge. Julian is passionate about all the fish in his possession, as well as those that are not.
The Planet Catfish project was born way back in 1996 from a desire to collate all silurid knowledge into one place, and it’s apparent that Julian is not averse to digging in and absorbing some of that himself.
If his thirst for knowledge and enthusiasm for livestock seems relentless, then his fish room is the physical proof of this passion. Here is a man with a dedicated 30 tanks — and it feels that, given the chance, he’d have many more.
Unusually for a fish fancier, Julian prides himself on keeping fish for all of their natural lives, and in some cases afterwards, too.
He’s not a whimsical snatcher of new species, keeping them for a few months before moving on to something else. He goes out of his way for something special and maintains a lifelong bond. As such, there are some very established fish at the Dignall home, like the 13 year old Brochis, collected in person from the Amazon.
He opts for individual filtering of tanks, some with external canisters, some with internals and some with multiple internals — especially where fish are uncannily filthy and live in an environment close to sawdust. Thermofilters are favoured for larger tanks, but given the insulated nature of this purpose-built aquatic arena, it’s hard to imagine them firing up often.
The fish room was built in 2007. Progress was laborious, with jobs as the painting of the backs and sides of tanks taking several days. You soon note that there isn’t a single tank with less than three sides obscured, giving comfort to these generally secretive and shy fish.
Julian also explains that the bases of each tank are blackened out, given their stacking arrangement, to prevent the algae forming on the bases, underneath the sand or rounded gravel substrates, where bubbles of gases are formed and creating potential pollution problems.
Maintenance of this lot takes around 20 minutes daily, including a rotational waterchanging system, cleaning of filters and feeding. Upstairs, there’s an aerated water tank to prepare mains water for aquarium use. With hard plumbing in place, Julian has a water supply as and when he needs it to make everything more time efficient.
Why this love of catfish?
I wanted to find out why Julian loves catfish so much, so pressed him for those reasons — and was pleasantly surprised.
Like an extension of the Planet Catfish website, this fish room is geared to knowledge, and that’s what Julian wants from his collecting exploits.
He has gone further than most lay aquarists in tracking down the objects of his affection in the wild and he has undertaken four collecting trips to South America, two to North America, two to Africa and one to India. So, clearly, when he browses for livestock his horizons stretch far beyond the local fish store.
Julian feels there is still so much we don’t know about catfish and he’s embarked on a crusade to fill in the gaps — and not just out of curiosity.
As he explains, there’s an onus on fishkeepers to learn all they can about their fish, especially where previously unseen species are concerned. Such knowledge is owed, not just to each other but more importantly to the fish as well.
Julian is so dedicated to his crusade that he’s never strayed from the freshwater hobby.
Marines are not for him, nor will there be any likelihood of any turning his head. He feels the freshwater side of the hobby, especially catfish, is simply too vast to be able to collect all we want.
Favourites of the fish house
All of Julian’s fish are delightful, but some stand head and shoulders above the rest. There are undescribed species, lone representatives of bycatch, breeding projects and fish few human eyes have seen.
If you like obscure, this is the place to visit…
Catfish are clearly legion, though there's a surprising gathering of non-silurid forms too. Betta macrostoma are here, as well as Cryptoheros cichlid strains and Pseudocrenilabrus.
Gracing Julian’s office there’s even a community-esque display with a host of Mystus catfish, Sewellia loaches, home spawned Pethia and one of the finest and best-behaved Red- tailed black sharks in the land!
However, I came for the specialities and here's what I really found myself coveting...
Neosilurus ater (above)
Julian calls them the ‘kangaroos of the fish world’. Eel-tailed catfish are instant eye magnets and capable of hitting 45cm/18” or so, although the individuals he keeps are just over 20cm/8”.
The best way to describe these magnificent critters is to think of the front half of a Giraffe catfish with the rear half of a tadpole and a knifefish. Snuffling about underneath rainbowfish, these were my favourites of the day – and one of Julian’s self-confessed great loves.
Australasian by origin, they tend not to appear in the UK shops that often, although their care isn’t so difficult. Acidic waters of around 6.5 to 7.5pH, temperatures between 20- 27°C/68-81°F, and a diet of meaty foods and insects will keep them on top form.
They’re safe too, not even bothering to eat smaller fishes.
The Golden vampire plec has to be sought out, but when visible at Julian’s fish room it’s a sight to behold.
Apparently a smaller fish, only recorded as reaching a shade over 10cm/4” and with liking for warmer waters at 26-29°C/79-84°F, these territorial cats are the domain of the real ‘fishionado’. Adult sizes remain a contentious issue, as congeners do grow somewhat larger.
They have a meatier palate than most, but will fit in nicely in that hot-house South American tank you might be planning. Yummy.
Peckoltia snethlageae – L141
Another charming L- number you need to work hard to see, this white-seamed treat with uncertain taxonomic destination is real eye candy if maybe an acquired taste.
Pretty unfussy as regards specific water requirements and even temperature, they’re forgiving fish that should find a home in more tanks than they do. They don’t even reach 15cm/6” fully grown.
Here’s a driftwood catfish you’ll not have come across before, unless you’re Julian, and I was delighted to lay eyes on one for the first time!
This adorable species is exclusively an insect feeder, retaining those whiskers in crevices either side of the face until ready to feed, which it then does directly from the surface as it snatches at fallen and unsuspecting swimming bugs.
Being a crepuscular hunter it’s not out much, but when it is it’s a real reward. Watch this space for possible future imports.
As far as we know it reaches around 7.5cm/3” and adores wedging itself into wooden crevices. Beyond that, information is more vague.
Another near unknown species, and likely to be the only examples here in the UK, this woodcat is best thought as being part Tatia and part Liosomadoras.
The genera was only described within the last two years and represents a perfect example of how some catfish keeping can be real 'seat of the pants' stuff when we don’t have more information to go on.
Either way, they’re charming in their own right and a fish we should all look forward to eventually seeing in our stores.
A better range than many stores!
Spread across Julian’s 30 aquaria are a selection of fishes that any hobbyist would love to access to — retailers take note!
Fish hail from all around the world here, and every tank has another exciting project. I was fascinated to see a spawning set up for Synodontis nigriventris involving a bare tank, some moss, and egg crate.
African cats make appearances around the room, with a tank of Pareutropius buffei sat alongside Synodontis membranaceous, and even the cutest dwarf Giraffe catfish.
Some of the fish here have been picked up as by-catch of other imports, such as fascinating undescribed Ageneiosus catfish, that feast on insects and play possum for defence.
Even the more day-to-day fish are thrilling. A tank housing a community of fish is home to some of the nicest Corydoras robineae you’ll see, hunkered down with Corydoras pantanalensis.
And it’s not all about catfish making up Julian’s vast assortment of fish. Look closely and you’ll not only find some exquisite anabantids, but cichlid treats like the colourful Cryptoheros panamensis.