As well as making peat free compost, our team are experts in restoring peat bogs. Here is an article written by Jenny Sharman, Yorkshire Peat Partnership about our work at Ramsgill, featuring an interview with our site foreman and digger driver Barry:
Last year the Yorkshire Peat Partnership restored 2,635ha of peatland across the Yorkshire Dales. Looking back at this achievement, and with the next season of restoration work nearly upon us, it is a good time to reflect on the individuals who actually carried out this physical restructuring of the gullied and boggy hillsides.
Often in the most extreme conditions, on tasks that require a particularly unique skill set, the digger driver is among those most worthy of recognition.
It takes a particular strength of character to deal with the isolation of working in an enclosed cabin for eight hours a day, battered by the winds, rain, snow and occasional blinding sunlight that all characterise winter on the moor. Beyond these climatic challenges, peatland restoration demands a very niche set of skills from its creators. The drivers operate their ungainly, heavy machines with a surprising amount of precision and delicacy, not only negotiating over treacherous bog, but also manoeuvring in such a way that will leave no lasting impact on the fragile landscape over which they patrol.
Barry Smithson, a digger driver for 15 years and a site foreman for four, smiles as he recollects his early experiences, “When I was first hired I was told that I needed to forget everything I’d ever learned in the past and start again! It’s all new up here, you’ve got to read the ground – it’s so fragile and you need to drive the machines completely differently to keep them balanced and afloat.”
Smithson’s speciality is re-profiling and re-turving of eroding gully sides and ‘hags’. It involves the careful reshaping of the degrading peatland slopes and meticulous placement of heather turf taken from the gully top to provide a protective layer over the newly shaped features. “The hardest part of the job is making as little mess as possible when moving machines about. Again you need to read the ground, don’t do any sharp turns and take care not to scrape any turf off.”
The first time I ever saw this process I was in awe. I couldn’t believe how delicate a weighty 10 tonne digger could be - and it was nothing short of a miracle to see the bare, black eroded gullies transformed, from one day to the next, into apparently healthy, vegetated slopes abutting their valleys of meandering streams.
A self-confessed perfectionist, Smithson takes particular joy out of these creations. “I get a good feeling from a job well done - there’s nothing worse than looking at a landscape that is black with bare peat. It’s very satisfying to be able to change that.”
Smithson’s most recent job with the Yorkshire Peat Partnership was on Ramsgill in the Nidderdale AONB. This site had particular challenges, mostly as a result of the devastating burning that occurred there after several aeroplane crashes during WW2.
“The major issues were that it was so wet and the turves so thin. They’re really poor quality due to the fire that went through. There’s also a severe lack of Sphagnum. We overcame the wet by staying on bog mats to keep afloat. The Sphagnum we had to collect miles away from donor sites. As for the turves, we had to be especially careful to ensure they didn’t disintegrate. It was a challenge, but rewarding to see the difference after the work.”
It’s thanks to people like Barry Smithson that our peatlands now have a chance to regenerate and once again return to be the valuable carbon sinks and healthy habitats they once were. It is an extraordinary legacy. For him, this demanding, specialist work has its own rewards: “It’s great work! You’re out of the way, on your own, in the fresh open air every day - and one of the greatest feelings is to be able to look across the moor and see no blackened areas of peat! It also makes me very proud to think I may be reducing the effects of climate change.” Looking over the vast landscape that he and his colleagues have helped to transform, Smithson smiles at a job well done.