If this week’s offering seems a little damp, your eyes are not deceiving you. The text is moistened with my tears.
A week is not only a long time in politics, it is also a long time in gardening.
There was something markedly different about this winter, compared to the previous four. By the end of November fish traditionally retired to the bottom of the pond and we never saw them again until well into March the following year.
This year, due to the very mild weather, they were visible for most of the winter, cruising sluggishly but still coming to their familiar feeding spot and taking the odd pellet.
On the last weekend in February all was well with the world and God was in his heaven.
34 fish cruising, five orfe, three carp and the rest goldfish of various
shapes, sizes and colours, and all in excellent condition, which sounds infinitely more polite than calling them fat.
The first frogs arrived a few days later, with the first deposits of spawn on the 28th.
That’s when I noticed that the pond looked strangely disturbed, bits of pondweed and marginals floating in the water. Probably damage caused by the frogs or by the pair of Mallards that alight on the pond every spring, squawk around for a bit before flying off to nest on our neighbour’s land.
13 fish were cruising. Nothing unusual or alarming in that, until I found a neat pile of fish scales near the steps leading up to the water, and more of the same on the eastern margin, yet more near the inflow pipe, and several pieces of fish, one of them a belly brimful with eggs.
The bed of candelabra primulas looked severely thrashed, the just emerging plants flattened as if a steam roller had gone over them, and there were tell-tale tracks in the mud. Five, rather than four toes clearly visible – an otter, rather than our dog, a dog, I must admit, who’s very fond of a fish supper.
Two years ago a young otter took a brief dive in the pond, surfaced, turned, took one look at me (I know I look a fright) and vanished up the inflow pipe, never to return.
The most obvious thing to do was block the inflow pipe at both ends, which didn’t take long.
The next day the fish tally had fallen from 13 to 9.
This was too sad for words. These were my fish. I’ve known some of them since they were eggs, and many had names. There was little Sardino, a goldfish runt Anna and I had picked up at a garden centre last September, Big Mama, the oldest goldfish, brilliant scarlet with a pale pink head and prominent, red lipstick, two oversexed blue schubunken, the carp Pasternak, Bulkakov and Gorki, and five golden orfe, three of them a magnificent size. I could go on, but the recollections are too painful.
And there was nothing I could do. My remaining fish were doomed to become otter fodder. I know the otter, with a generous 3000km of seashore at his disposal, won’t rest until he or she has killed the very last one. Perhaps there was more than one otter, more than 20 good-sized fish gone in three nights could mean a whole family had feasted.
All was doom and gloom and as if severe piscean grief weren’t enough, I’d suffered the worst attack of sciatica in two decades.
I felt bereft and helpless and had more or less decided to spend the day in deep mourning. Five minutes after this decision was taken, Isabelle, our wonderful German Wwoofer came in the kitchen, carrying an old bucket. “I got one,” she said. A pale fish, Pasternak, the white carp, was swimming in the bucket, caught with the help of a child’s net, the sort of net children use for scooping up tadpoles or sticklebacks. “If only we had a bigger net, a real landing net, one with a long handle, I could probably get them all out.”
A state of emergency was declared, a large landing net procured after endless phone calls, and help summoned in the form of my friend George, who knows a thing or two about fish. Isabelle donned a pair of waders and waded into the pond which, much to my horror, has silted up severely since its installation.
Two more fish are caught and placed in a large, well-scrubbed tub, filled with pondwater and oxygenators.
Eventually a concerted fish-catching effort begins at 5pm, an hour later than planned due to cars breaking down and other delays.
One more fish is caught and the pond has turned into a muddy brown hole.
At 7pm James comes across the otter, a young one, too scared to leave a pond now surrounded by 3 humans and a barking dog.
The dog is removed, and after some persuasion – and amazingly, the rescue of one large orfe – exhausted, it eventually climbs out of the pond over an hour later, and makes for the nearest ditch which leads down to the road and the sea.
Hopefully never to be seen again – in or near my garden?