Photography: Walking in the threatened landscape of Swanscombe Marshes

Swanscombe Marshes, August 2015

The Swanscombe marshes are threatened by an impending planning application by London Paramount. They want to build a theme park on this vast wildlife haven. Is that really the best use of wild land when wildlife is in severe decline in Britain? I don’t think it is. I visited Swanscombe in March and have written this poem. There is a petition by a locally-led campaign to save the marshes, please sign it if you like what you see here.


Swanscombe has a number of different habitats: reedbed, brownfield, hedgerow, woodland, farmland and species rich brownfield grassland.

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The grasslands along Black Duck Marsh are covered by wild carrot, birds-foot-trefoil, kidney vetch, red clover and a number of other nectar rich plants. This has attracted a number of interesting insects which have seen flower rich meadows and waysides disappear over the past 50 years. The insect above is an ichneumon wasp, one of over 2000 species in Great Britain.

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It’s unusual to see early bumblebee around in August, but here one was, feeding on hawkweed oxtongue, a weedy plant that provides a great deal of nourishment for invertebrates at this time of year.

Turnip sawfly

Turnip sawflies were seen across many of the flower heads of wild carrot, a common plant at Swanscombe. Sawflies are lesser known pollinators related to bees and wasps.

Painted lady

Sited alongside the Thames, it was not surprising to find a few migrant butterflies. There were a number of clouded yellow (too quick and unsettled for me to photograph) and this painted lady. It was fresh and may well be readying for its amazing journey south through Europe to North Africa where its parents had set off on their journey in the spring. How they can find their way back is not yet known to science.

On the southern slope of the rocky bank that runs through Black Duck Marsh, lucerne grew in large clumps. Even on a grey and breezy day there were a number of butterflies there. This, however, is a day-flying moth, the latticed heath.

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There were patches of kidney vetch growing along the rocks of the Black Duck Marsh bank, and we wondered if small blue, a very rare butterfly in Britain that relies on the plant, could be present. We didn’t see a small blue but I did find this common frog hopper, the insect responsible for what I knew as a child to be ‘cuckoo spit’.

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Common blues were flying low in the grass, possibly laying eggs on birds-foot-trefoil.

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The breeze made macro photography very tricky, but I tried to make the most of the grey sky, wild carrot and lacewing feeding on its flowers.

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Sitting on the bank of Black Duck Marsh we were visited by this stunning hornet mimic hoverfly, Volucella inanis. This insect is in the family Volucella, a group of hoverflies which mimic bees and other Hymenoptera (bees and wasps) in order to deter predators and instead fool them into thinking they’re a threat.

Brownfield is a poorly understood habitat, it is also in the firing line as the housing crisis intensifies in the south of England through lack of affordable housing and poor planning in central London (I’m referring to the luxury accommodation, property banking boom), to name but a few symptoms. As for its importance to wildlife, willow tit is a severely declining bird in England but is now seemingly favouring brownfield over ancient or more established, secondary woodland. Brownfields are often so rich because, like Swanscombe, they are free of pesticides and are left to establish of their own accord. Many brownfields are more precious and indeed green than parts of the Green Belt, a measure ordained to protect open space. They’re also pointers to the feeding opportunities that non-native species like the above white melilot can offer to native insects like bees, a group of insects that offer £560million to the UK economy through pollination (Bumblebee Conservation Trust).

The Channel Tunnel could be heard as it raced underneath our feet. The above photo is the largest spread of birds-foot-trefoil I have ever seen, all growing on the spoil from the original development of the tunnel. Again, brownfield habitats can be some of the richest in Britain. This area would be lost to the development.

There were a number of pathways cutting through the marshes, like this buddleia byway.

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My single memory from visiting Swanscombe Marshes in August will be the colour of the grasslands, the yellow of the trefoil, the white of the carrot and purple and blues of the lucerne. Please sign the petition to raise awareness about this unique and diverse wild place. There is time to make a difference and Save Swanscombe.

See more at the campaign page for Save Swanscombe Marshes

The sun sets over Dartford

It’s late afternoon and the sun begins its descent toward Dartford. In the east the bridge is reflected in the shimmering Thames. Rainham Marshes is behind us, beyond the large concrete seawall and iron fencing, protecting the reserve from dogs, people and vehicles, protecting skylarks and lapwings, birds that breed on the ground. Gulls pass over from the marshes and across the Thames to the south. A deceit of lapwings exits, too, their flappy black wings belie their compact shape when grounded. They return to Rainham a few minutes later. Evidently this is not an exodus. Teal are swimming on the Thames, their colours draining as the sun retires behind them. We inspect the shoreline, its thin marshland and garbage. The ducks want to feed here, but what’s to be eaten? The tide bubbles audibly against concrete, an armchair rests at a tilt in the marsh, half against the slanting ground and half in the slurry. The chair is stained where it’s become soaked by liquids other than water over the years. If you were to sit in it, you’d fall backwards, skull first. The dry land is tropical with all kinds of plastic: caps freed from their bottles, thin tubes like the insides of biros, thousands of bits of broken plastic, and a syringe. There are pieces of driftwood lying around, one chunk has been bleached by sun, sea and salt. It breaks under the slightest pressure, the yellow shape of woodworm hibernating in a crevice created inside. I wonder how far this piece has travelled.

The sun is setting further, the river taking on the image of a lagoon, still the teal are drifting. We walk back along the path in the direction of Purfleet, a small flock of pied wagtails circling us back and forth to Rainham. They are wary and so they come and go, at last settling on a patch of rushes and straggly vegetation covered by yet more rubbish. Small islands of sand and mosses remain amidst plastic, industrial sponge, a road crossing bollard and bottles galore, the pooling water has the metallic sheen of petrol. The eye’s obsession with trash distracts from the living, in this instance the stone-washed water pipit holding onto a stalk amidst the rushes. The wagtails patrol the sand in their cheerful manner, taking pops at one another on occasion. The water pipit is still, in contrast to its cousins. A woman in red approaches and the passerines are flushed from the islands and back over the seawall, the pipit going with them. She has a green lager tin in her hand and white earphones. She sits to watch the sun from the wall, kicking her legs. The birds return to their patch. The pipit lands at the water’s edge, joined by what looks like a second pipit. The much duskier bird lacks a white eye stripe, or supercilium, and is itself a different bird, a rock pipit. Like its cousin, the rock pipit wags its tail as it looks for something to eat.

The trains back to London arrive on the hour so we sit by the water and watch the final movements of the evening. On the path a woman pushes her grandchild in a buggy, remarking to us that Thurrock once had a population of forty-four. This, of course, was centuries ago. The pipits would have been in a similar spot then, likely feeding in water free of oil and sponge, but no doubt touched by different sort of human waste. Up ahead, a man rides a mini motorbike with his daughter in his lap, his look is sincere. They disappear between a gap in a dumpy little bush. On the grass dwarf mallow leaves await flowers and a pair of mistle thrush regard us with caution as they disappear into near darkness. The sun is a ball, inflating and draining into the south, v-formations of gulls sweep to the east, down a river now black and gold. Ducks and debris float freely towards Greenhithe and Grays, a slurry of pollution passing by, highlighted in the twilight.

A fashion shoot is taking place against the railings, a young woman with cropped hair and a purple dress stretches herself against the bars in a mocking vogue. As if from the river itself, as its inhabitants flee eastward, a curlew calls over and over again.