All that blisters is not goldfish

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THANK goodness for John Major. Publicity over the plight of his goldfish has probably saved me money and reprieved sundry local cats, herons and mink.

Parliamentary commentators have puzzled over what was making the Prime Minister, Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown chuckle at last month's VJ Day ceremony. This week Ashdown revealed that the object of mirth was Major's sunburnt goldfish.

"The Prime Minister gave us a very engaging description," Ashdown said. "They had sunstroke over the holidays and had to be taken out and given sun cream." A spokesman said: "The Prime Minister has a pond in his garden in which he takes great interest. He has a number of other types, but the bulk of the population is goldfish."

I didn't know that goldfish could get sunburned, but it solved the mystery of what happened to the inhabitants of my own puddle. One day the fish were swimming around, fighting to get the choicest ants' eggs; the next, the pond was empty.

My daughters, who had given every fish a name, were distraught. My reaction was that some fish-eating creature had come for lunch, most likely a heron. Though a plastic heron fishes at the waterfall end, I've never really believed that story about herons not intruding on another's territory. It looks plastic to me. I'm sure a sharp-eyed heron won't be fooled.

It could have been a cat. But some hefty kois, mirror carp and tench live in the pond. A cat may have snaffled the smaller fish, but the bigger ones? And anyway, it would be a bold moggy that ran the gauntlet of my two springers, who have a certain reputation where village cats are concerned. Mink? Plenty in the area, but Bracken and Ginger would have reacted to their pungent smell. Cormorants? Not enough of a runway to take off and land.

With herons as the prime candidate, I planned to cover the whole pond with mesh as well as buying a tripwire device. This releases a jump-up set of eyes and explodes a cap when triggered. The dogs were to be given aversion therapy, with pictures of herons eating their food, and my air rifle retrieved from the loft, But then along came Factor 5.

It made sense. Badly burnt by the unrelenting sun, the fish had obviously done what humans do when they get scorched: retire somewhere quiet and dark to suffer in silence. The fish could still be there, unseen in the murky depths. Confirming this theory, Dusky reappeared on Thursday, followed by Wiggle and Ken. I saw Lightning on Friday, Halley and Tiger later that afternoon.

Their behaviour is invaluable for an angler seeking to understand how fish feed and what they like, so I phoned Nick Fletcher, editor of Practical Fish-Keeping, for advice on how to avoid a repetition.

"Goldfish don't get sunstroke, but kois do," he said. "I'm sure that's what John Major's fish was. Kois have patches of white that can get get sunburnt if the pond is not deep enough or does not have sufficient shade. I suggest that this is what's wrong with the Prime Minister's pond. The fish's skin goes red and blisters, just like a human. You can treat it with special creams which work underwater."

Fletcher is convinced that two particular varieties of koi, nezu ogon and soragoi, might enjoy fresh interest in the light of the Prime Minister's fishy tale. "They are both grey, not very exciting, generally unloved by breeders, but have a small following," he said.