Microzooplankton community composition, abundance, biomass and grazing impact were assessed, along with measurements of ciliate growth and mortality, during the onset of the spring bloom in the north-east Atlantic. The study was undertaken as part of the UK Biogeochemical Ocean Flux Study during 1 May to 15 June 1990. The microzooplankton community was composed of protozoans and metazoan developmental stages with respective mixed-layer depth integrated biomass values ranging from 127 to 638 and 74 to 394 mg C m−2. High numbers of aloricate ciliates (up to 35,000 cells l−1) dominated the microzooplankton community during early May prior to the onset of the spring bloom. Ciliate abundance then declined rapidly during mid-May with community growth rates ranging from −0·71 to 0·23 d−1. High abundances of metazoplankton (up to 400 l−1) were also recorded at this time and may have contributed to the decline in ciliate numbers. In late May and early June the protozoan community comprised a more even mix of dinoflagellates, tintinnids and aloricate ciliates. Phytoplankton mortality rates, measured using a dilution technique, ranged from 0·2 to 0·5 d−1. The microzooplankton consumed 8 to 44 μg C l−1 d−1, equivalent to between 16 and 40% of the chlorophyll biomass and 38 and 154% of primary production. These high rates of herbivory reflect the predominance of small (<5 μm in length) phytoplankton cells present throughout the first half of the study and support previous studies demonstrating the microzooplankton to be the main grazers of phytoplankton in the north-east Atlantic. However, there is also evidence that a disparity between predator and prey may have prevented a response by the microzooplankton to rapid increases in phytoplankton biomass and production during the spring bloom.