Hannah Woodall, Land Use Policy Officer with the RSPB Cymru team, tells us about a major peat restoration project being undertaken at Lake Vyrnwy.

It’s an afternoon in mid-Autumn and I pull off the road at Gadfa leading to the Bwlch y Groes, the second highest pass in Wales, where I’m flanked by two sides of iconic Welsh uplands. The breeze is cool, but the bluest of skies and warm light illuminates the hillsides. It is so peaceful, yet there is something unusual about this afternoon. In the distance a group of excavators are moving in a battle-like formation, which is duly apt, considering the Welsh word Gadfa originates from battlefield.

But this isn’t a battle, or at least not in the traditional sense and how this place received its historic name. It is more a battle against biodiversity loss, climate change and intensive agricultural policies.

I’m here to meet Gareth and Tom of Owen Environmental, from local farming families, to discuss peatland restoration and how their contracting business has flourished into providing this pioneering restoration at RSPB Lake Vyrnwy.

Gareth (left) and Tom (right) of Owen Environmental, stood on one of the peat dams at Gadfa. Photo: Hannah Woodall, RSPB Cymru

Peat restoration can certainly feel like a new and upcoming concept and can in some cases be treated with caution - understandably so. Could it be a buzzword? Could it simply disappear in the next decade? If you’re considering these question or you think you know all you need to, I’d encourage you to please read on.

Working at a landscape-scale

This isn’t just a small scale individual person or organisation endeavour at Vyrnwy, it’s big, landscape scale. In two years, across 3000 hectares of uplands the degraded peatlands at Vyrnwy have been rewetted by blocking around 200km of gullies and drainage ditches with more than 21,000 peat dams.

Peatland restoration at Bryn Glas, Gadfa, RSPB Lake Vyrnwy, before and after. Photo: Alex Falkingham, RSPB Cymru

This project is delivered through partnership with Hafren Dyfrdwy, Natural Resources Wales, United Utilities and other charitable trusts, seeking to deliver a Gold Standard to peatland restoration and carbon finance. But the partnership is built around the expert work delivered by specialist contractors at Vyrnwy, one of which is Owen Environmental.

An alternative opportunity

Farming is core to rural life in Wales and both Gareth and Tom can vouch for this. They’re from proud Welsh farming families who farm along the beautiful Afon Mawddach where Welsh is their first language. Both brought up on beef and sheep farms and whilst farming has been central to the enterprise, both of them recall diversification on the farm from a young age. Gareth recalls, “I grew up with machines ever since I was a little boy," where his father was involved in groundwork and excavation since the 1980s. No wonder Gareth’s previous stint selling hot tubs across the UK didn’t quite sit right, having a real passion for rural life and machinery!

But this is a telling and ever growing tale, where rural communities have to seek opportunity outside their home to earn a living. The peatland restoration work here offers an alternative opportunity. Not only are Gareth and Tom running the business for themselves and their families, but they also provide work and income to other local people, upskilling them and offering opportunities closer to home, helping to retain money in the local rural and farming community. They both see peatland restoration isn’t just a short term option, they see it as a long term business model. Tom says, “once you have invested it’s a good income and hopefully a business for years to come, as it’s something that will be going for a long time.”

It’s hard to not be impressed by the intricacies of the machinery and their work. I asked a little more about the equipment and am confronted with a wealth of knowledge and a key indication of expansion within their business model. They total 10 machines ranging from 3.5 to 15 tonnes, all modified and selected specifically to work in this this type of environment.

They’re also seeking new opportunities such as the modification of machinery to auger forestry stumps on peatland that does not damage and expose peat. They see it as a risk investment, but a unique and growing business opportunity where the machinery is already gathering interest. This knowledge of the harsh environment and what tools are required, is a key element to peatland restoration success.

Both Gareth and Tom agree that having farming experience as a peat contractor is really important. Gareth adds that it’s a delicate craft where “knowledge of how the water works on the land is important…if it’s going to behave in a certain way, what else do you need to do to make everything work.” They both credit their understanding of the landscape to their lives spent on the farms at home.

Delivering Sustainable Land Management objectives

Farms in Wales are facing significant change, where farmers are now being asked to deliver a suite of Sustainable Land management objectives, alongside food production. Within this, peatland restoration has been identified as a way for farmers to deliver against these objectives. I ask them a little more on how the new Sustainable Farming Scheme (SFS) can help scale up peatland restoration and where they think a farmer, with peat on their land, would start. They talk about the need to combine the work of conservationists and farmers, whilst being mindful that farmers need to see and obtain the economic benefits of doing so. It’s clear they recognise the mindset of the farming community but they also understand that of the conservation organisations. They also discuss how they would facilitate local contractors onto farmland through options available through the SFS to farmers and the importance of monitoring the site at an ecological level.

To the unassuming eye it may appear that Owen Environmental had it sussed from day one, but they’ve had challenges, like all business endeavours. Tender processes were challenging to accommodate and the initial feedback centred around a lack of experience in peatland restoration. But they’re pleased to say, they persevered and a breakthrough occurred which formed the basis for their success. Both are happy to admit that they have learnt lessons over the last four years of peatland restoration, but they are excited by the challenges and have enjoyed working in partnership with conservationists to overcome them.

Owen Environmental, observing the peat restoration at Gadfa. Photo: Hannah Woodall, RSPB Cymru

Making a difference

They see that the framework for peatland restoration isn’t perfect. The absence of a national specification means some peat restoration can be done too basically on a poor budget. Tom states “we’re trying to do it to the best of our ability in the best way possible, so the higher spec drives up price, meaning we’re sometimes outcompeted for tenders due to cost.” They accept this is a risk with any business model, but what’s obvious with Owen Environmental is that they are proud to uphold their approach and principles, striving to see this as a national framework.

Reference: The economic costs & benefits of nature-based solutions (rspb.org.uk)

We move to discuss peatland code and private finance. Their feeling is that it’s a good income stream, independent of grants and agricultural support schemes, adding a layer of financial security to the farm. They’re interested in carbon finance themselves, believing that it will be a worthwhile investment as carbon credit value increases. But how do two local lads feel about larger companies using this as a means to offset carbon? Their feeling is that farmers should always stay on the land and have first choice of the credits to ensure they’re carbon neutral, but companies who are willing to invest in a gold standard of peatland restoration should be encouraged and believe that the restoration of this valuable and special habitat is the critical outcome, one on which we should all be focussed upon.

It's clear to see the large-scale positive work being done at Vyrnwy and I finish by asking them what they like most about the work and Tom answers it perfectly; “Making a difference.”

For further information on this article, please contact hannah.woodall@rspb.org.uk