The much-maligned ballast pit, Skerries’ hidden treasure

Charlie Heasman; 5/12/20

Ballast Pit orchids plus photobombing butterfly

So what does the Ballast Pit mean to you? What does it mean to the people of Skerries generally?

Ask the question and be prepared for the usual barrage of negative keywords:

Wasteground; Untidy; Antisocial behaviour; Litter; Cans; Something should be done about it, etc, etc.

Some would disagree of course, notably dog walkers, who at least have one last refuge in which they can let their pooches off the lead for exercise and a jolly good sniff around without anyone complaining. For at least a short while once a day in their lives the dogs are untethered and free to follow the innermost exhortations of their souls.

I like dogs; always have, and have owned a good few in my time. But don’t anymore; it’s not worth the hassle.

Once upon a time owning a dog was straightforward: you acquired a mutt of something like the right breed and size, looked after it and threw sticks, thereby enjoying loyal, unconditional affection. Now it’s all microchips, licences, astronomical vet’s bills which you wouldn’t spend on your granny, grooming; nail clipping and expensive dental work which the old girl’s never going to get and, heaven forbid, black plastic poo bags which you subsequently hang on the hedge. Granny would be mortified!

These days I’m quite content to pet other people’s dogs (with their permission of course; you can’t be too careful in this day and age) and smile inwardly when I see someone walking their dog in the Ballast Pit.

So that’s dog walking covered; what about the rest?

Peacock butterfly, Ballast Pit

Let’s deal with drinking.

It used to be colloquially known as k*****r drinking, which we’re not allowed to say in print anymore though most of you still do in private. Let’s call it “the illicit consumption of alcohol in an outdoor urban setting by underage youths”, which has the twin disadvantages of not rolling off the tongue at all well and failing to address the fact that youthesses(?) might also be involved.

It happens. In the Ballast Pit. So what?

Does the Ballast Pit actually cause this? If it were not there would the ‘problem’ go away? I think not.

I’m going to have to be careful here not to be seen as condoning underage drinking. I am not. What I am saying is that it exists, always has done and in all probability always will. There will be very few reading this who can hold their hands up and claim in all honesty that they never did it themselves. I know I can’t.

Where I was fortunate was that I never had to indulge in the standing-around-shivering-in-the-long-grass business. During my teenage years I lived in rural Mid-Wales. If my 17 year old self fancied a pint on a Friday night he could leave the farm and walk up and cross the open hill, dropping down into the village of nearby Aberedw and the Seven Stars pub. There he would sup on a bottle or two of Mann’s Brown in the company of the old boys who seemed to have lived in the place forever and were both intrigued by, and were possibly pleased with, his unexpected company.

If he took one too many the journey home might take a little longer.

One such night provided an unexpected surprise.

This was exactly 50 years ago but I remember it as clearly as if it was yesterday. The night was quite light with a fullish moon obscured by cloud, but certainly enough to steer by. Having crested the hill and now dropping down into terrain that I knew well I came across a rock in the bracken that I knew had no business being there. So I stopped. The rock moved and raised a black and white striped head which revealed it to be a large boar badger. The two of us stood there not three feet apart regarding each other for ages before he finally got bored and shuffled off. I went home to bed and got up for work the next morning; presumably the badger did something similar.

Moving ahead some 25 years, and now in Skerries, my own son was of underage drinking age and he and his mates were the sort that the Gardai would harry out of the Ballast Pit and off the beaches. The lads meant no harm and as far as I know there was never any real trouble; certainly no arrests.

These days they all have families and respectable jobs; one’s an in-house accountant, another a schoolteacher, and my lad’s now a house-owner with a good job as an engineer, in Sustainables I’m pleased to say.

So where am I going with all this? My point is that things are not always as bad as people often make out. My son came to no harm in his time and I got to meet a badger in mine; I hope others can do similar in one of our few remaining wild places before it is gone.

Probably the best cans in the Ballast Pit; or not?

Just because drink is sometimes taken in the Ballast Pit this does not make it a bad place. In fact let’s turn this around and look at things from a different perspective. Some might say that if the Ballast Pit was not there it would be one less drinking venue and the problem would be lessened. And they’d be wrong, totally wrong. Natural surroundings do not cause anti-social behaviour. The good people around Beau Piers and the Community Centre have long been plagued by anti-social behaviour (please don’t contradict – it’s true) where there is not a bramble or gorse bush in sight. So should we demolish this obnoxious area of brick, concrete and tarmac and start again? Of course not.

Perhaps the Ballast Pit is a good thing after all? At least it’s removing the noise and disturbance away from people’s front doors? The residents of Selskar and Skerries Rock can breathe a sigh of relief.

And here lads, you lager swilling louts, is where you don’t get let off the hook: by all means have a good time – although please bear in mind that we are in the middle of a pandemic – but if you can manage the strength and physical effort to carry full cans in, can’t you at least manage to carry the empties back out? It’s your environment, your future. Mine’s mostly over; yours is just beginning. There are people who have been cleaning up after you, the Ballast Pit has been near spotless all summer. Until Halloween, when it filled up with rubbish again overnight. Like this:

Nice one Lads!!

Now it’s clean again. Your Mammies and Daddies won’t always be here to wipe your arses, you might just have to learn to do it yourselves.

———————————–

So there’s the negatives; it would be nice to look at the positives.

Let’s talk about the Ballast Pit in terms of ‘waste ground’. What is it and what do we mean by the term?

Obviously we mean ground that is not being used; is going to waste. But why? Because we have not yet mown it down, sanitised it or built something on it?

Let’s just re-imagine that it could be a last refuge of what we have systematically set out to destroy, of nature that we have come to think we can dominate and suppress because we are so damned clever that we can. But we can’t.

There is a growing awareness that we are in fact part of nature and that we need it whether we care to admit it or not. And not just on the spiritual ‘lay down under a tree’ Hippie level; we literally need it for our very survival as a species. And for decades now we’ve been doing our level best to destroy it.

As towns have increased in population and size they have spread and engulfed more land, and we lament the loss of agricultural land. The Ballast Pit was never farmland and was therefore even more likely to be built on. So far it has had a couple of narrow escapes and we’re lucky it’s still there.

We may feel guilty about the continued sprawl and expansion of our urban areas and yet it would be fair to say that in many regards our towns and villages support far more wildlife per hectare than the farmland that surrounds them. They have in effect become miniature nature reserves in their own right.

Modern intensive agriculture is not conducive to biodiversity. Hedge removal for bigger, more efficient fields; mono-culture; herbicides and pesticides have all combined to drive nature out of the countryside. There is little or no room for it anymore. Take a drive round the fields of Fingal next summer and have a good look for yourself.

By contrast urban gardens are full of insect life, particularly the pollinators that we now know we so desperately need and cannot do without. Gardens that are managed, either wholly or in part, for pollinators are even better. Once you have the insects back, plus seeds left to ripen, you start getting the birds back. It’s begins to self-perpetuate.

Planted for polinators.

But I digress. As important as town gardens are, they are not the subject of this post: the Ballast Pit is.

The great thing about the Ballast Pit is that it does all this by itself.

You might think that it is just full of brambles and Ivy. Okay, but brambles produce flowers for pollinators in summer and berries for birds and everything else in autumn. Ivy flowers in autumn for late pollinators and produces berries for birds in winter. Both are excellent cover and nesting habitat.

Knapweed, an important pollinator plant

And then there are the parts that are neither bramble or ivy; quite a lot of them too.

This summer my wife and I armed ourselves with mobile phones and plant identification apps and found close on 200 plant species without trying too hard and certainly without the aid of a microscope. We were surprised to find flax (as in the stuff Irish linen was made from) and we photographed Pyramidial Orchids. Later we found out that the latter are only found on one other site in Fingal: Newbridge Park.

Apart from the rarities there are many other once common wildflowers that are now not so common. In summer the banks are ablaze. The place is also full of butterflies and bumblebees, on account of the rich flora. Chief amongst these is the Small Blue Butterfly, on the endangered list and now found in only a handful of other locations in Ireland. There is also the Large Carder Bee, it too endangered, a bumblebee which has disappeared from most of the country and whose numbers are declining year on year, and one that we are currently engaged in trying to save.

The Small Blue: it may be brown on top, but it’s blue underneath. Honest!

There’s lots more but that’s enough for now. It’s pretty miserable at this time of year but next spring and summer go take a look for yourself with freshly opened eyes. You will be surprised what you see.

————————————

*It couldn’t be done this year because of covid, but next year I would hope to be able to organise small groups for biodiversity walking tours. Fingers crossed.

7 Comments on “The much-maligned ballast pit, Skerries’ hidden treasure

  1. So well put Charlie. We should be grateful for our pollinators and leave them a sanctuary in which to forage.

  2. Charlie this is a great read and extremely interesting. Many a night I was kept awake with the going ons in the the Ballast pit, it seems to be a right of passage for our young people. As you say as long as they clean up. Our polinators have a great Santuary in the Ballast pit let them enjoy it. Great article

    • Great perspective Charlie and very balanced overall. Thanks for factually highlighting this precious wild area …..so scarce and so nearby. Nature is the real star of the show in this article.

  3. Before the Ballast pit was fenced off I kept a diary of the wildlife which I found there,stonechats were common, lizards could be found on the sunny banks. Birds foot trefoil attracted small blue butterflies.Pyramidal orchids were plentiful.Cinnabar moths were also seen. In the early 1990’s there was a group of us interested in getting the Ballast Pit designated as an S.S.S. I. as. wild places were disappearing from the town.Rabbits were also there in numbers which attracted foxes.I remember Dr. Declan Doug coming to assess the wild flora.It would be wonderful if protection could be afforded to this site.
    Kind regards,
    Betty

  4. I was very interested to see the article on the Ballast Pit,a favourite place of mine which before it was fenced off I visited on most days. I also kept some records over the years of some of the wildlife which I encountered there.At one time a group of interested people tried to get a protective designation for the area.I remember the renowned botanist Dr. David Doug coming to look at the flora,this was when the area had been designated for the proposed swimming pool. Among the mammals present were rabbits foxes and rodents.Birds often sighted included stonechats, Reed buntings, white throat, linnets and thrushes.Lizards could be seen basking on sunny banks and crickets could be heard.Cinnabar and burnet moths were also present, as were most butterfly species particularly the small and common blue, which could be seen foraging on birdsfoot trefoil.Pyramidal orchids were common also a number of different trefoils.Great Mullein, rosebay willow herb and many other wild flower species were present. It would be wonderful if the Ballast Pit could be given some protection as there are so few wild areas left in the town.I really miss being able to walk there.

    On Sat 5 Dec 2020 at 20:36, Sustainable Skerries wrote:

    > sustainableskerries posted: ” Charlie Heasman; 5/12/20 Ballast Pit orchids > plus photobombing butterfly So what does the Ballast Pit mean to you? What > does it mean to the people of Skerries generally? Ask the question and be > prepared for the usual barrage of negative keyword” >

  5. Thanks for this. Why is it called the Ballast Pit?
    I am a recent arrival in Skerries and have yet to walk around the Ballast Pit but I had noted it as one of the few inland areas in the town where nature at least has a chance to do its own thing. Other such areas are the handful of tree lines and hedgerows dotted about.
    The ones I live nearest are the brook or mill stream, the adjoining narrow woods and marsh area as well as the tree line that runs behind Sherlock Park. Unfortunately these are all litter black spots as I know too well having adopted them as my patch(es) for Tidy Towns. I agree with you that kids and young adults need to have their fun but could they not take their litter home with them or at the very least leave it gathered together for easier removal by FCC or volunteers like me? It is not just drinkers of alcohol but also younger kids with soft drinks.
    I see some bizarre behaviour where alcohol drinkers will gather up their empties into bags and then fling the bags into the trees or even the stream. I am guessing this is an attempt to hide evidence of their drinking?
    I am constantly picking metal and plastic out of the stream which of course runs to the sea. The whole message about plastic in the ocean seems to have completely bypassed these people.
    Litter aside I have seen plenty of evidence of fires being lit which may be tolerable but not if it endangers living trees or involves burning plastics which I have seen. Sadly I have seen evidence of trees being deliberately broken as well.

    What I’d love to figure out is a way to communicate with these youngsters as they certainly won’t be reading this.

    • There are two schools of thought as to how it got its name.
      The first is that coal ships discharging in Skerries and having no return load took on ballast from the Pit for stability on the way back (they’d bob around dangerously like corks otherwise). The second is that the material was used to build the Dublin-Belfast line. Both seem plausible but I’ve yet to meet anyone who can say for sure, you’d think there would be some record?
      Your comments about littering I 100% agree with, you’d think that in this day and age youngsters of all ages would know better.
      I often wonder what Skerries or any other town would look like if not for the efforts of volunteers clearing it up.
      Keep up the good work.

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