A place where I think aloud.
All text and photos (unless stated otherwise) © Gail Ashton
16 January 2022
There’s an explosion of activity in my garden today. After a couple of months of relative quiet, the 120m2 patch of land I share with nature has come alive with feathers, colour and shouting. I stand at my window now and, at a glance, I can see blue tit, robin, great tit, starling, blackbird, wren, wood pigeon, grey squirrel and magpie all happily sharing the space.
However, all is not a cordial as it seems. Look closer, for longer, and you will see fierce inter-species competition playing out. Blue tits may look small and demure, but they one of the most territorial birds you will see in the garden. My resident blue tits have, through a campaign of bullying, harassment and sheer violence, established a racket along the length of my northern boundary and they patrol their patch fiercely. Today they are especially vexed by a wren and keep chasing it out of the pyracantha, where I suspect the wren is trying to establish a nest site. Great tits, though larger than their bullish blue relatives, cautiously zip in and out of the garden, careful to avoid confrontation. The robins and blackbirds, not being in direct competition with the blue tits, seem to have an entente cordiale, and move around relatively unchecked, although I suspect they have their own agenda.
At ground-level, the grey squirrel is resolutely Switzerland, and fusses around in the turf urgently seeking out all the hazelnuts it cached in the lawn last autumn. It weaves a cautious path around the magpie, which in turn side-eyes the wood pigeon and they move around each other suspiciously like unwilling participants in a Georgian quadrille who just want to be left in peace at the buffet table. The pigeon ascends, startled, and takes a wrong turn into the living room window, giving us both a shock. It flies away, seemingly unharmed, and as I inspect the greasy ghost on the glass, I realise that my garden is nowhere near big enough to support this community of species. And this worries me, because my garden is fairly unique in my street. Unique because I have shaped my garden to maximise wildlife interactions, whereas the majority of my neighbours have shaped theirs to minimise it. All around me, trees are felled to avoid work in autumn, hedges scrubbed in favour of fences, and plastic grass laid in a desperate attempt to turn outside spaces into internal rooms. Taking the inside out is the new bringing the outside in.
The result of this is that more and more individuals are being squeezed into my relatively tiny habitat, as their natural food sources dwindle. There won’t be room for all of them, and this makes me incredibly sad, especially as when I inevitably move on from this home, my chaotic little attempt to create an ecosystem will most likely be dug up, levelled and manicured to sterility. But I push such thoughts to the recesses of my mind because they are here now and I continue to watch the battlefield as the sun comes out. A wren poops on my garden chair, and I feel honoured.
January 2022
In December, after almost three years of unwavering loyalty, my ringlite diffuser literally fell apart at the seams. It was a moment of brief sadness, firstly because it was a unique bit of kit that I designed and made myself; there is simply nothing commercially available that works as well. But secondly, because it had accompanied me on so many adventures, and witnessed the most extraordinary scenes of tiny invertebrate life. The one down-side of my custom-built diffuser was that, although it worked perfectly for the 65MP-E, it was not compatible with the 100/2.8 macro. In 2018/9 I used the 65MP-E almost exclusively, and I was happy with my slightly weighty but perfectly portable macro system. But last year I was set the challenge of finding a broad range of insects for my book, I had to double up on lenses to cover everything from aphids to dragonflies. This meant doubling up on flash systems too – my custom-diffused ringlite and another flash gun with a mini softbox for the 100mm. On my first outing with the extra kit, it became obvious that this amount of kit was unworkable. Every time I swapped lenses I also had to swap flashes too, which at times demanded the kind of balancing act that would make a plate-spinner proud, as I balanced multiple items of delicate kit on my hip-attached camera bag in an attempt to avoid them rolling around in the dirt. This was not exactly the streamlined approach to nature photography that I set out with. I needed one flash to work with both lenses, that would also provide the right diffusion for my very picky needs. So I’ve bought a twin light that came with mini softboxes. It’s not dedicated, and is a little ungainly, but the test results seem pretty good, so all I need now are some obliging models to put it through its paces.
12 December 2021
My kitchen window gifts me with a panoramic view of my garden, making a chore to which I am ritually bound somewhat easier to tolerate. As I absent-mindedly pushed the squeaking dishcloth around the bottom of a soapy glass I noticed movement on the roof of the neighbouring bungalow. There are several cats in the hood, all of whom have had the audacity to claim my wildlife garden as their playground; needless to say, our relationship is less than cordial, but let us save the debate of cats in gardens for another day. If this was one of the local moggies, however, it had a helluva long tail. I squinted, following the movement behind the waning buddleia and as it reappeared, I realised it was a fox. We have a healthy vulpine population in the area, supported by the proximity of a sizeable green space which borders a strip of semi-mature woodland. However, I have only ever seen them at night, and was surprised to say the least at the sight of one patrolling in broad daylight. The fox in question was flanked by a pair of magpies, neither of which appeared to be mobbing it. In fact, they seemed to be following the fox, watching what it was doing. The fox seemed to be honing in on some unseen target, because it dropped off the roof with some degree of purpose, and the magpies followed it. Whatever mystery bounty they had found, I could only speculate, but it kept them busy for some time. Why was it out in the day? Was it a youngster, struggling to find its own territory by night, which had resorted to skulking around in the day looking for scraps? Of course, I would never know the circumstances of this little fox. So, I returned to more pressing matters. After all, the washing up wasn’t going to do itself. 
October 2021 - Discovering the Dengie
Living in a large town, it’s difficult to truly get away from it all. And being a working, single mum makes it even harder. That wonderful phenomenon of sensory isolation is almost impossible to attain in our lives. The closest I’ve come to achieving anything like it recently was the bold move of wearing my noise cancelling headphones in Aldi, which worked from a sonic perspective, but was compromised by my general lack of awareness when negotiating the aisles. I took a walk in my local woodland with a friend yesterday, which was lovely, but also a super-highway for neighbouring dog-walkers, including one character who boldly questioned our vaccination status and then desperately tried to secure a congratulatory elbow bump with us.
This not being my idea of splendid solitude, I set my sights a little further afield for a child-free-just-me afternoon out. As a frustrated, land-locked thallasophile I have frequent yearnings to get out to the coast, with very few of them coming to fruition. Today was the day. The weather wasn’t looking too bad (did I say I’m also a fair-weather walker?), I had the whole afternoon to myself and a full tank of petrol to get me somewhere. But where? Suddenly crippled by the freedom to go anywhere, I couldn’t decide. Suffolk? Too far for an afternoon in late Autumn with its shortened days. Clacton? Too many humans – I want quiet and remote, remember? I scanned my phone map, in customary fashion, looking for the pale lines around the coastline of Essex that signified beach. I found a promising looking spot, and headed out, to Dengie. 
The Dengie peninsular neither looks nor sounds particularly appealing, not least because of the looming presence of Bradwell nuclear reactor, rising like a monolith from the horizon as you drive eastwards towards St Peter-on-the-wall. But I have learned that, if you stand with your back to such places, the view in the opposite direction is often wild and beautiful; this is also the case at Dunwich, in Suffolk – a paradise in the shadow of Sizewell. On I pressed towards the headland, in the direction of a much smaller building on the tip of the peninsular which, when it was built would have been every bit as impressive as the monolith of industrialisation behind me. 
Built in around 660CE, St Peter’s Chapel is one of the oldest remaining, intact Christian churches in the country. It was the brainchild of Cedd, an Anglo-Saxon bishop who journeyed to the peninsular by sea from Lindisfarne on a mission to spread Christianity throughout the south of the British Isles. The chapel is constructed across the footprint of a Roman fort - Othona; the building materials of the ruins were re-used to build the chapel. It has been repurposed and restored over the centuries, is now a Grade 1 listed building and continues to be a functioning place of worship.
I was a little dismayed as I pulled into the parking layby, to see quite a lot of cars, and people. My day away from civilisation didn’t appear to be going to plan.  A stiff cross-shore wind took me by surprise and blew straight through my ears as I walked down the path and arrived at the chapel, which suddenly looked larger than I expected. If I thought was big on the outside, I was stunned when I walked in. In an instant the wind was gone (I couldn’t even hear it), replaced by the suspended calm that is synonymous with churches. So quiet was it, that the only perceivable sound was the squeaking nasal inhalations of a man sat on a pew in the corner.  The improbably high ceiling sat atop walls so high that I actually paused to reflect upon how on earth it was possible with relatively few workmen and probably just ladders. Churches have that large, cold building smell that is so evocative, but I really wasn’t expecting it in a marsh-side building that is so remote and has the wind persistently howling past its doors. Externally, the chapel resembles a sturdy barn (a role that it can included on its already impressive CV) that can be seen from a good distance in every direction, including out to sea. Imagine seeing that as you sailed into the Blackwater estuary fifteen hundred years ago. The construction of this hefty house of God, right on the headland was a blatant statement of Christian intent, and would have been an unnerving sight to incoming fleets with any ideology of invasion.
I pressed on away from the chapel, in the direction of the sea. With the open-minded mentality of one who is hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst, I wasn’t expecting much from this stretch of Essex coastline, but I could not have been more wrong. As I ascended the sea-defence I saw the headland drop down into coastal marsh, mosaiced with sand spits. Further round, those thin, pale lines I had seen on the map stretched out into small beaches which, in the bright October sunshine looked more Hebrides than Essex. But Essex they were, and I drank it in. There’s quite a bit of infrastructure on the Dengie ranging from the remains of a Saxon fish trap to the huge Thames barges that have been sunk into the seabed to slow the current and prevent coastal erosion around the point. But that was about the sum total of human evidence that I encountered today. My fears in the car park about hustle and bustle came to nothing as I dropped off the sea defence path and ambled down to the shoreline, deliciously alone.
Today, I decided I was going to have a go at birdwatching (this is something I did enthusiastically as a child, but left behind a few decades ago) so I had added binoculars to my already burgeoning kit. I had, as usual, taken all of my camera equipment. Severe FOMO prevents me ever leaving it at home, which is a shame as I would have been happy to carry 7kg less in my backpack. (As it transpired, I didn’t use it once.) Birding is a very different beast to entomology, as I discovered when I was trying to train my binoculars on a distant group of moving objects. It is a strange departure from the norm, looking at larger things that are far away, and it brought to mind the infamous Father Ted scene in which Ted, in a fractal of futility, attempts to explain perspective to a cognitively overloaded Dougal through the medium of cows: “Ok, one last time. These are small, but the ones out there are far away..”
Once I’d got my eye in, I saw some rather lovely beasts. Oystercatchers busily snouted around in the silt, and Little Egrets skulked in the shallows. A large flock of Brent geese congregated on the sandbanks, recently arrived from Siberia. Skylarks quite literally larked around above my head along with several other species that any birder worth their salt would have identified simply by their call, but left me none-the-wiser. The same could be said for the various gulls which lazily glided around the point, but offered no further clues to me of their identity. I can spot a Nomad bee from metres away, but large white seabirds have me stumped. Speaking of insects, it would be remiss of me to fail to mention the numbers of Common Darters that were still out, flexing their wings in the autumn sunshine; clinging on through the last few warm days before the winter chill set in.  
I had intended to do the circular walk around Bradwell Marina and back up through the fields to my car, but I just couldn’t bring myself leave that stunning beach so, in an unusual departure for someone who loathes going back on themselves, I simply turned around and retraced my steps. This was literal as well as figurative, as my boot prints were the only ones on the beach to retrace. By now the wind had dropped, and with the power station behind me I felt the full sense of remote beauty that I had come here for. My stride slowed to an amble as I let the incoming tide wash over my boots. As I looked across the bay towards Mersea Island, and out to sea, everything came together in that perfect blend of sensory balance; my eyes and ears were cleared of noise, and so my head started to do the same. I became conscious only of the water splashing around my feet, and the shells crunching under my boots, and I think I may have briefly achieved that most elusive feeling – inner peace. ​​​​​​​
12 September 2021
Giving mosquitoes meaning
Sifting through Facebook the other day, as one does, I happened upon a post from a horrified individual, demanding to know what the merry hell was swimming in her pond. My interest piqued, I scrolled down enthusiastically, hoping to see some form of leviathan appear, but instead saw a blurry scene of tiny, wriggling rice granules performing the Macarena beneath the surface of the water – mosquito larvae.
A glance at the comments said everything you need to know about the general feeling around mosquitoes. ‘Tailspin’ would describe the response fairly accurately.
Mosquitoes are not generally welcome by people. At best, they are an irritation, at worst they are the vectors of the biggest killer of humans on Earth: malaria. In the UK we are incredibly lucky to be free of this disease (the mosquitoes here do not carry the Plasmodia parasite which transmits malaria). But this hasn’t stopped the panic-train running out of control; most insects in this country are hated or feared, regardless of whether or not they bite, sting or suck (and really, most do not). The aforementioned mosquitoes were clearly doomed, as posters lobbied for their swift elimination.
But why were they there in the first place? Because mosquitoes are one of the most adaptable, resilient and therefore successful animals on the planet. The adults are terrestrial, but the larvae are aquatic, breathing through a siphon – a hollow tube at their rear-end. They will breed in almost any source of still or slow-moving freshwater, though the dirtier the freshwater, the better for mozzies as they feed on rotting organic matter. They are a pioneer animal, breeding and developing where nothing else will. As decomposers they feed on plant and animal matter, and even the micro-organisms that feed on sewage waste. 
Reading this back, I am aware that this may not be helping my cause for the compassion of mosquitoes, but hear me out because this is where it gets interesting. Mosquitoes may be the first to arrive at the party in your pond, but they don’t remain alone for long. The larvae are a food source for a wide range of aquatic predators such as Pond-skaters, Water Beetles and Backswimmers which are attracted by the water, but will stay for the buffet. The increase in aquatic activity will consequently draw the next level of the food chain, for example damselflies and dragonflies, the larvae of whom are voracious predators in the underwater habitat.
Mosquitoes develop quickly; in around two weeks the larvae – called ‘wigglers’ – will metamorphose into adults. The adults, now winged and distinctly fly-like break the surface of the water and take to the air. At this stage they become food for even more predators; frogs, toads, newts, birds and bats all include mosquitoes in their diets. The summer visitors – swallows and swifts – rely on healthy invertebrate populations upon which to refuel at the end of their migrations; mosquitoes are central to this supply. The mass emergence of flies – particularly mosquitoes – may be a horrifying prospect for many of us, but to a swift who has just completed the 6000km flight from central Africa, it’s a bit like a child being locked in a sweet shop.
In conclusion, a small colony of mosquito larvae in your pond or random water receptacle is not something to be feared or reviled. They could in fact help to increase biodiversity in your summer garden, as food for one of many other species in the food web. So the next time you see these bizarre little bottom-breathers in your pond, rather than freak out, watch and see what follows them..

An Ivy Bee (Colletes hederae) foraging on Ivy flowers
31st August, 2021
We need to talk about Ivy. 
Yes, Ivy. That green monster that indiscriminately suffocates your fencing – or it would, if fences were living, breathing organisms. But they aren’t, and Ivy isn’t a monster; that’s why we need talk about it.
As the last zephyrs of summer retreat back towards the equator they are replaced with the nippy chills of autumn, and we find the garden rubbing its weary eyes as it slowly concedes to the big winter sleep. The riotous colour and energy of summer flowering fades, and the last insects of the year find it tougher to find food. This isn’t of any great consequence to the individuals who have already completed their life cycles, but it is a critical time for those invertebrates which overwinter and reproduce the following spring. Autumn food sources – and lack of them – can literally be the difference between life and death. 
Most gardeners plan for spring and summer displays of colour with bulbs and perennial herbaceous plants, leaving a gap in early autumn that can be difficult to fill. Here is where Ivy steps in; an autumn flowering, native plant which enthusiastically plugs the gap for nectar and pollen eaters. And blimey, do they love Ivy. The hedge I walked past, yesterday, was barely in bloom and yet it was positively humming with the sound of hoverflies and Honey Bees. In a couple of weeks, Ivy’s very own super-fan, the Ivy Bee, will emerge and literally make a bee-line for its favourite food source.
So, what’s the problem? Well, the horticultural demonisation of Ivy in the last few decades has resulted in its decimation in private gardens. Homeowners, fearing for their fences and brickwork, removed large stands of this beautiful plant across the country. This was a huge loss to more than just nectar-feeding insects. Ivy grows thick and dense, creating shelter for many birds; robins and blackbirds love to nest in it. Ivy also creates safe harbour for a myriad of invertebrates that are not only food for other organisms, for example caterpillars, flies and bugs, but also natural predators such as earwigs and ladybirds. 
I am guilty of committing ‘Ivycide’ in the past, during my ‘clean-freak’ gardening days. Now, as a convert to wildlife gardening, I am actively coaxing it up the fence panels. If we want a healthy garden, we need some Ivy in our lives. It’s easy to grow, evergreen, and tolerates the heaviest of prunings. It doesn’t even have to cost anything; it often turns up uninvited, so why not make the most of it? 
A hornet (Vespa crabro) queen constructing nest cells
25th August, 2021
2021 was a difficult one for all of us, and my Blue Tits were no exception. The nest box on the side of my garden office has fledged chicks successfully each year since it was installed. However, this year’s pair aborted their attempt in mid-April after laying just one egg, due to the unseasonably cold and unsettled late-spring weather.
In mid-summer I set about the task of cleaning out the next box. Expecting a fairly straightforward removal process, I balanced one knee slightly precariously on the water butt, reached up above my head, clasped the nest box firmly in both hands and attempted lift it off the nail upon which it was hung. It didn’t budge. I shook the next box more vigorously, but no amount of wiggling, shaking or pulling would dislodge it. I lifted the lid to investigate further, and made a wheezy, gasping noise of panic, as I realised that right next to my hand, on the underside of the lid was an enormous hornet. I dropped the lid and ducked, covering my head with my hands (the standard human procedure for protecting oneself against everything from a bee flying into your face to house falling on your head) and waited, resigned to the fate of a furious insect flying out to swiftly dispatch me. Because that’s what hornets do, isn’t it? They are cold-blooded, evil beasts who want to kill humans. Search the word ‘hornet’ on the internet and you will see newspaper headlines about ‘killer hornets’. On the same page, popular questions include ‘Are hornets dangerous?’ and ‘Can hornets kill you?’. Further search ‘wasp nest’ and you will mostly find pest control companies and shopping ads for chemical control. Humans really don’t like them.
So, there I was, cowering beside the water butt, waiting to be stung to bits. I would hear it first – the loud, resonant buzz of angry wings. But nothing. My innate sense of wayward curiosity rebounded and I unfurled myself from the foetal position to draw level with the requisitioned nest box. I placed my hand on the lid (so much more gently this time) and edged it open with the apprehension that one might turn the handle on a jack-in-a-box (or Pie-Face, for those of you under the age of thirty). The hornet was still there, nest-building, and she didn’t so much as look at me. She was busy, quietly and patiently constructing whisper-thin paper cell walls with the care and attention of a master crafter. As I looked more closely, I could see a single egg in each of the four cells she had already completed. If my first reaction was panic, my second was to run for the camera. It took a nanosecond to weigh up the risk of being stung by a defensive hornet queen against the potential for getting photos of her, because no pain, no gain, right? But even with brand new eggs to protect, the hornet queen industriously carried on working, without even so much as a raised foreleg (a warning behaviour often seen in bees and other invertebrates). This certainly wasn’t the behaviour I expected from an animal branded as an aggressive pest, she was the complete opposite.
I fell in love with my new garden resident, and every day I had a sneaky look inside the nest-box to check her progress. The nest cells increased and she began work on the outer wall. I then realised that I had a dilemma. My queen was a gentle giant, but once the workers matured and the nest was established, there simply wasn’t enough safe space around them. A stray football or bang on the wall from the inside of the garden office could jolt the colony into a defensive response. My garden is very small and the next box was no more than four metres away from the surrounding gardens. I was torn between wanting to see my queen to successfully nest, and feeling responsible for what might happen if something went wrong.
It was all decided for me in the end. I had an idea to move the entire nest-box, queen and all, across the road into a patch of woodland, where the nest would not be disturbed. I lifted the lid to find that she wasn’t in there; I would have to wait until she returned to move the box. It was then that something to the left of the next-box caught my eye. I glanced round and saw my hornet queen, suspended, motionless in a spider web. Devastated, I let out a small, involuntary choking noise. After all her hard work, this supreme predator had herself become part of the complex food-web that was my garden. My hornet’s story was over before it had barely begun. 
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