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19 February 2021

Tony Heaney is a man so happy in his job it’s positively galling!

Welsh Slate’s restoration manager for the past 17 years, it seems come rain or shine he’s never had a bad day. Which is saying something, in the sometimes-harsh environment of Penrhyn Quarry, the world’s largest natural slate quarry, in the heart of the Snowdonia National Park.

In fact, Tony’s had quite a few really good days, including the one when he was presented with an award from the CPRW (Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales) for “The care of the local environment” – his work restoring the land impacted by quarrying activity.

This work has included techniques and skills exclusive to the quarry that have attracted the interest of such exemplar organisations as WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme), NRW (Natural Resources Wales), Bangor University and Gwynedd Council, who are considering applying them in other areas of land restoration in Wales.

Tony has developed a bespoke process for breaking seed dormancy which has success rates of 80-95% – a level better than most horticulturists would expect to achieve. The fine-tuning of temperature using fridges and heaters mimics the unique climate at the quarry which has played host to such horticultural champions as Alan Titchmarsh.

The aim of the restoration programme at Penrhyn is to encourage the natural process of the regeneration of and the reinstatement of land affected by quarrying activity. Many areas of the site have regenerated naturally, and these areas are categorised by Welsh Slate as a conservation model to follow for the rest of the quarry at Penrhyn, and the other quarries in company ownership.

Sections of the site, including wetland and heathland untouched by quarry working, are regularly inspected to maintaining the conservation value of the surrounding area, and these areas are also used as a conservation/restoration model.

All of the trees and shrubs, and many of the grasses and wild flowers, are of local provenance, collected from local seed sources and nurtured by Tony’s loving green fingers at his eighth of an acre compound between Welsh Slate’s head office building and the quarry pit.

It is in his “office” on the compound where Tony typically starts his work day at 0700 after an hour’s drive in his pickup from the self-efficient chalet on an acre of land 1,000ft up in the mountains he shares with his wife Christine, a semi-retired designer.

Coincidentally located on a former quarry site, and coincidentally bought around the same time he became Penrhyn Quarry’s restoration manager, they grow their own vegetables and harvest rainwater and ground water from a natural spring. A busman’s holiday!

While his office may be relatively basic, Tony did furnish it with a proper coffee machine, and after his first cup of the day, Restoration Manager makes his way by pickup to the quarry slopes to inspect the heathland and wetland, perhaps rhododendrons and thin silver bitch, and to continue the planting programme which has seen some 15,000 trees rooted in the past 17 years.

Walking up and down the steep slopes at the rate of some 300m2 a day (500m2 if you count the flat bits in between) and fully kitted in safety equipment, Tony has the mountain goat practice down to a fine art by now.

By 1000 hours, Tony is ready for his second coffee of the day, this time from a flask, and between noon and 1300 hours is ready for lunch back at the office – either a Pot Noodle or a mix of two different brands of cuppa soups, lightly garnished with turmeric and pepper.

After lunch, it’s back to the slopes or working in the compound for a few more hours. Seeds are grown at the purpose-built compound to main the generic purity of planting stock, with “green” compost used exclusively for the growing and planting procedures. All stock, apart from grasses and wildflowers, is cell grown to a height of between 40-80cm, with larger specimens grown to one metre in polystyrene pots.

Planting follows two procedures, depending on whether the tip slopes and benches are relatively easy (1) or difficult (2) to access.

Procedure 1 involves placing trees and shrubs into hessian sacks containing 1.5 litres of compost, then burying them in-situ to allow enough growing medium and nutrient for the plant to establish. No fertiliser is added, and the sack gradually biodegrades over a period of 12-14 months, allowing the root system to establish. This “pocket planting” helps to establish blocks of seeds to create a colonised area of growth where regeneration is encouraged. All seeds are pre-germinated before application.

Procedure 2 uses seed balling and pocket planting on steep gradients, and the sack method at the base of the slope. Seed balling is a method that was developed at Penrhyn, where balls of compost are integrated with pre-germinated seeds. These balls are then cast down the tip slopes, finding their own lodging point, then gradually break down to provide an ecosystem for the growth of the selected seeds to take place.

As former divisional manager for a facilities management company Tony may be 66 but has no plans to retire as Welsh Slate’s restoration manager.

He said:

“I love my job and I’m pretty fit for a 66-year-old. It is an active lifestyle and you do get some challenging days, but the nurse reckons I’m as fit as some 30-year-olds.”

And he added:

“When I got the award from the CPRW I was absolutely over the moon. Taking into account the need for wildlife preservation and improvement of species, Welsh Slate implements a sympathetic approach to the restoration programme as well as bearing in mind the local historic value of the landscape and the personal impact of the quarry on local residents.”

The CPRW award was made in recognition of Tony’s and Welsh Slate’s “restoration of vegetation on the slate tips around the Penrhyn Quarry which respects the natural ecology of the Nant Ffrancon and the historic importance of the great quarry to the culture and identity of Bethesda.”

Tony’s work with Welsh Slate at Penrhyn was also the subject of a WRAP showcase demonstration day.

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