Peat extraction on the Somerset Levels
Peat extraction on the Somerset Levels, in South West England has occurred since the area was first drained by the Romans, and continues today on an area of less than 0.5% of the total geography. The modern system in recycling land back to farm use and conservation has resulted in the creation of numerous Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
After the Romans left Britain, from this period forward, peat extraction was undertaken by hand by the owning or tenanted farmers.
Developed from 1922, it was initially operated by horses. The tramway had its mainworks at the Broomfield Works, where from the 1930s the company constructed its own locomotives from kits supplied by R.A. Listers of Dursley, based around either Lister diesel or J.A.P. petrol engines.
The railway crossed both the Glastonbury Canal and the former Somerset Central Railway from Burnham-on-Sea to Wells, near Ashcott railway station. Merged into the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway, .5 miles (0.80 km) west of Ashcott existed "Alexander siding", which allowed exchange between the SD&JR and the Eclipse tramway system, and hence distribution of cut peat products across the United Kingdom.
Extraction problems, sale to Fisons
The introduction of plastic packaging in the 1950s allowed the peat to be packed without rotting, which led to the industrialisation of peat extraction during the 1960s as a major market in horticultural peat was developed.
The need to reduce the amount of peat extracted led to the need for mechanisation, and hence Eclipse agreed to be bought by Fisons in 1961. This was the last year that hand-cutting was used to extract peat, and since this time all cutting has been done by machine.
Presently the Fisons Eclipse Peat Works covers 3,000 acres (1,200 ha), but only 1,100 acres (450 ha) are actually worked — less than 0.5% of the entire area of the Somerset Levels. Employing 90 people, more are employed in the summer when the peat is turned by hand to allow it to dry. 70% of production is sold in various products to domestic gardeners, while 30% is used for commercial purposes.
After the company has finished working an area, it is environmentally restored, and then either resold to the original farmer, or conservationists or private buyers. The system has led to the creation of a number of Sites of Special Scientific Interest, giving a haven to wildlife on the levels.
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