The herons have returned from their northern breeding grounds to spend the winter in Shetland. The other day I found a tell-tale rounded grey feather floating in the pond. In the absence of sufficient quantities of fishing line to be stretched strategically around the pond margins, I have to shout at them from time to time to scare them off. Shetland has 5000 km of coastline, there is water everywhere, and absolutely no need for them to come to my garden. My pond is tiny compared to the big ponds surrounding the islands.
There was a time in my life when French perfume, a Cashmere jumper or a pair of Italian leather gloves got my pulse racing. I still enjoy such luxuries, but these days, when I treat myself to a new luxury, it is more often than not a fish.
Oh no – not monk tails or fresh sardines from a fish monger’s slab, but the real thing, alive and fanning (fish don’t kick). Last week I treated myself to two golden tench and a tiny pale goldfish with a black band at the base of its tail, from the bargain bin of a garden centre.
There are several grass paths in the garden, all are well-used, but there is one where the turf is flattened, sparse and muddy – it’s the path to my pond, used several times a day. My pond, a broad oval about 12 by 14 metres, was constructed five years ago and my daughter and I used to swim in it during its first summer.
It became a magnet a year later as the first tiny shubunkin goldfish (a present from a friend’s ‘High Maintenance Husband’) were introduced. Four years on, it still exerts that same magical pull.
Water adds a new dimension to a garden. Surrounding plants are reflected in the water, as is the sky. The expansion of the pond flora, once the water starts to warm up, is breath-taking. Where there was one lily leaf, there are half a dozen the following day.
It is fascinating to watch the parrot’s feather (Myriophyllum aquaticum) returning to life in late spring. The mat of brown and dead-looking foliage suddenly sprouts delicate new red-tipped growth and within days brown is transformed to brilliant green.
Another transformation takes place amongst the pond’s oxygenators. Covered in slimy blanket weed after the winter, they soon undergo a miraculous cleaning process. Millions of newly-hatched tadpoles feed on this alga until there isn’t a single scrap of it left.
Watching the tadpoles is one of spring’s great joys, and there is a slope, covered in soft grass and wide enough to allow two adults to lie on their bellies side by side – a front seat for the tadpole theatre as it were.
Whole colonies of them busily pick away at the algae-covered plants, then – and I’m not sure exactly what this means – they sit upright in the water, bend slightly backwards while their large mouths move continuously. Perhaps they filter more algae from the water, but to all intents and purposes this activity makes them look like a tadpole choir in full song.
Fish, after spending a long, cold winter on the bottom of the pond, start rising to the surface as the days begin to lengthen and the water starts to warm up a little. Sometimes, during mild and sunny springs, this happens as early as March.
They are shy and aloof at first, reluctant to take the pellets I throw in the water. It is almost as if their memory of the previous summer has been erased. As the season progresses they become trusting again, rise to the surface in great numbers as soon as they feel the vibration of my footsteps, and indulge in greedy feeding frenzies.
Some are less adept at feeding than others, taking several attempts at swallowing a pellet. Trotsky, a four year old golden orfe, is the largest fish in the pond. He used to have several large companions, golden and blue orfe, as well as ghost carp and koi. None returned after the winter of 2009/10.
Goldfish started breeding four years ago; their offspring, a uniform mauvish brown with paler fins, are known as invisible fish. Some change colour rapidly, others do it gradually over the space of a year or more.
This year there is some variation amongst the small fry, tiny pink or pale blue fish;some with darker markings or prominent red spots appeared at the end of August alongside their “invisible siblings”.
There are two nurseries amongst the water lilies and their inhabitants have started to feed lustily on the flakes I provide twice a day. Feeding fish flakes is a tricky business in a windy climate and involves a bamboo cane first dipped into water then into the flake container. One of the adult goldfish has a liking for nursery fare and arrives punctually every day to mop up the leftovers.
My pond is my television and the wooden bench on its western shore is my armchair. I can easily while away an hour there – or more – spellbound by the fish, tadpoles and frogs. Sitting motionless for a long time also brings other wildlife. Birds alight on the shore to drink or bathe and, the other day, a young frog climbed out of the water and sat, wet and gleaming, on a lily leaf.
It still sat, as I crept away to fetch my camera, but had vanished when I returned, hiding under its former seat.
Evening is my favourite pond time. After the last visitors have departed, the garden is still, the fish cruise silently and after rain, large drops of water balance on the lily pads.