A PROTECTED seahorse has been spotted in the waters off Studland Bay for the first time in almost three years.

Named 'Hope' by The Seahorse Trust, the juvenile Spiny Seahorse is the first to be officially recorded in the area since 2015.

Experts say although she was only seen a couple of times, and was obviously on the move looking for a mate, the sighting off South Beach, is still "amazing" and "a welcome sign."

Neil Garrick-Maidment, director of The Seahorse Trust, told the Daily Echo: "She will be moving back into deep water by now, so the chances of her having found a mate, set up a territory and started breeding are very, very remote.

"She is what we term a transient - she was on the move through.

"But what was fascinating is we found her, then we found her again a couple of weeks later after quite a violent storm."

In 2008, about 40 spiny seahorses were recorded in Studland Bay, but none had been spotted there since early 2015 until this summer. Conservationists say it is damage to the seahorse habitat - the seagrass - which caused the sudden decline.

Mr Garrick-Maidment said: "I literally just saw the top of her head when she was hiding away the second time. She was about 100 yards away from the first sighting.

"If she had found a mate, she may have settled down."

Only 14 of the UK's spiny and short snouted species had been recorded off the UK this year.

Both species have been protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 since 2008 - which prevents them being killed, injured or taken.

Mr Garrick-Maidment said: "What this sighting does suggest is that all is not lost.

"We've realised the problem is the fragmentation of the seagrass - I understand completely why the seahorses have gone.

"We have a lot of people saying the seagrass is expanding. Well it might be expanding outwards slightly, but internally it is fragmenting. It is like looking at the rain forest. if you look at the complete forest it is fantastic, you have this completely dense system and animals can move upwards, down, sidewards.

"But if you start putting logging roads through the rain forest, it starts to break up. Animals don't move from one area to another - it is not a complete ecosystem.

"We are not trying to ban people from going to the site, we are trying to put measures in so when people still use the area the wildlife doesn't suffer as a result of it."

The bay was previously recommended as a Marine Conservation Zone but not selected.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is now considering a third round, but has not released further details.