There is always some uncertainty when identifying rays, although the size of the blonde ray is a help. The only two bigger than the blonde (which reaches up to 1.2m/4ft) are the skate (2.4m/8ft) and the bottle-nosed (2m/6^ft). Both are longer-snouted than the blonde.
A prickly customer
Features to look out for on the blonde ray include a fairly short snout and right-angled corners to the wings. The entire back is prickly and the body is disc-shaped. There is a row of large spines down the midline of the tail. Large females sometimes have an interrupted line of spines at the sides of the tail.
Young fish have a central row of spines along the tail; their skin is smooth, lacking the prickles on the rear of the disc of their parents.
The clinching feature is the blonde ray’s colour. The back is light brown with scattered creamy blotches and small, dense dark spots extending to the very edges of the wings and on to the tail. (Those of the smaller spotted ray, which otherwise looks much like the blonde, don’t reach so far.)
Blonde rays are commonest offshore and most of the large specimens are caught by boat anglers. They live in water 18-36m (60-120ft) deep over sand, mud, gravel or shingle. Unlike thornbacks, blonde rays are not found in estuaries. Where they are caught close to the shore it is in full salinity, usually in deep water close to a rocky headland. Younger fish are found in shallower water.
Although blonde rays are relatively common in the English Channel and off southwestern coasts, they are not nearly as common as thornbacks or spotted rays. However, the three are frequently confused.
Blonde rays feed on the sea bed, eating large numbers of sandeels, flatfishes, gobies, dragonets and crustaceans.
The breeding season is in summer, from April to July. The ‘mermaid’s purse’ egg capsule, moderately large at about 10 by 6.5cm (4 by 2/4m), is flat on one side, convex on the other and covered with a mat of coarse fibres. The corners are elongated into ‘horns’. Up to 30 egg capsules may be laid at a time – they are sticky and adhere to stones, shells or seaweed. The embryo rays take seven months to develop.
Like other rays, the blonde has become much scarcer in recent years. Intensive trawling along the sea bed means that large numbers are captured, and because of their broad, flattened shape even young fish get caught up in mesh that is perfectly legal for round fish.