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The Peat Industry

Page history last edited by Liz Johnson 11 years, 11 months ago


Peat Harvesting in the Netherlands


by Cor Snabel and Elizabeth A. Johnson



Peat is a dense and spongy organic material, formed from an accumulation of plant matter. It is found in places where an abundance of water has prevented the complete decomposition of small plants. Over many thousands of years, deep layers of peat were deposited in large areas of the Netherlands.





In the early Middle Ages, peat was the most important fuel available in Holland. Forests were, and still are, rare in the Netherlands, and were mainly located in the southern and south-eastern parts of the country. Since wood was so scarce in the Netherlands, any timber products were used for house- and ship building and for furniture. Until the discovery of coal and oil, the only fuel available for cooking and heating was peat.


Peat was burned in the shape of blocks or briquettes. The average consumption of peat per household was about 9.9 cubic meters every year. Industries requiring heat, such as pottery, brick manufacturing, and brewing consumed many times more. So production of peat fuel was an essential industry that touched almost everyone in several ways.






There were two kinds of places where peat was found in the Netherlands. One type was the hoogveen or peat moor, which was formed above the water-table. The other was the laagveen, or peat bog, in which the peat had to be harvested from below the water-table.


In the earliest times, only the farmers living on the peat lands dug out the peat on a small scale, for their own use and for local sale. But due to the steadily-increasing population and the rise of industry, by the end of the fifteenth century the demand for peat had grown immensely. This made it financially advantageous for farmers to concentrate on peat harvesting, rather than depending on the success of their crops or upon the fluctuating prices of milk and eggs.


The first peat lands to be harvested were the hoog-veen type, located in the coastal areas of the west, closest to the cities of Holland. But by the beginning of the sixteenth century, many hectares had been harvested, the water-table was rising and large areas of ground had subsided. As the hoogveen areas close to the cities in the more populous western part of Holland were exhausted, new peat supplies had to be found.


In the seventeenth century, investors, seeing a potential for profit in the universal need for fuel, began forming corporations which purchased peat lands. They hired local laborers to harvest the fuel, then transported it elsewhere for sale. Many of these peat lands were located in the north eastern part of the Netherlands, in the provinces of Friesland, Overijssel and Drenthe. The end product, blocks of peat, was shipped by canal in barrels to consumers all over the country.






Initially a peat cutter could not dig any deeper than the point at which he reached the water-table. When this occurred, he had to move his activities to another tract of peat land. The harvested area, which had become swampy, was abandoned and allowed to gradually regenerate. Since peat only grew half a millimeter per year, this was a very slow process.


Before harvesting, all trees and bushes were cut, and a network of ditches and canals were dug in order to drain the land as much as possible. The top layer of the soil, called the bonck-aarde, was removed and stored until after the harvesting, when it would be replaced in the pit. Under the top layer was the grey- or white peat from which the so-called bolster turf was made, which was only suitable as peat powder, or as kindling for the actual peat fires. Below this layer was found the brown- or black peat, the portion that could be used as fuel.


The laborers worked in groups. Their roles were: de steker (the cutter), de graver (the digger), de karsetter (the loader), de kruyer (the wheelbarrow man) and de boncker (the mixer). The cutter divided the soil into equal blocks with a special sharp blade. These blocks were prized up by the digger and, with a special four-pronged fork the loader placed the blocks or turves of wet peat on a flat wheelbarrow.


With 24 turves the wheelbarrow was fully loaded and was brought to higher ground, where the turves were spread out on a layer of straw to dry. After two to three weeks they were dry enough to be stacked. These stacks were ingenious constructions that allowed the wind to blow through from every direction, further drying the turves. After the turves were completely dry they were ready for transportation and use.


After the peat had been removed, the fifth man of the crew, the boncker, threw the reserved top layer, the bonck-aarde, back into the open pit. There it was mixed with the sand or clay layer underneath, which improved the composition of the remaining land in order to create a soil suitable for simple agriculture such as potato farming.






As the population increased, the supplies of hoogveen peat were dwindling. But the introduction of the hand dredge about 1530 provided a means of harvesting peat from lakes and bogs. The hand dredge was a dredging net on a long pole with which the peat could be harvested from under the water table. With the hand dredge it was possible to harvest the bog peat until the underlying sand layer, sometimes twenty feet down, was reached. This new system of peat harvesting led to an enormous increase in fuel production. However, one major disadvantage was that the landscape was destroyed by the creation of deep bog holes, which turned into huge lakes. In the coastal areas of the Netherlands more than 150,000 acres of land was turned into water by harvesting peat.


First the dredger created a solid base on the bank along the water. From an open boat, he laid down a wide strong plank onto the solid base on the shore. Then standing on this plank he used the hand dredge, a net attached to an iron oval shaped ring with a sharp edge on a pole about 16 feet long. He cut the the heavy peat from the bottom, then using the pole as a lever, he raised it until he could throw it into another boat nearby. The second dredger was standing in this boat, and with a bucket or a special “bail-scoop” he added some extra water to the peat and mixed it with a special rake into a smooth mud-porridge. At the same time he removed any debris, such as shells or pieces of wood. Finally he piled this porridge on the leg-akker.


The leg-akker was a field on which the dredged peat was spread out to dry. It was covered with straw to prevent the mud from sticking to the soil. If the mud had shrunk two inches in the first night, the mixure was successful, and it was then ready for the turf-trappers, literally translated as 'peat-tramplers.' Most of these workers were women and children. Wearing small planks attached to their wooden shoes, they trampled over the wet peat, squeezing out the water until the layer was about 8 inches thick.


After three days the peat cutter marked the peat with a eight-pronged rake, the 'turf-claw.' After about ten days he came back and cut the peat along the still-visible lines into blocks. From this point the procedure was about the same as the way the peat from the moor was processed, except the drying time of the peat from the bogs took a few weeks longer.






In the last 400 years, peat has been harvested from over 650,000 acres of land. The leg-akkers, usually thin, elongated pieces of land surrounded by water, were often the only pieces of land left intact after all the peat had been removed from an area. Even today, especially in the areas south of Amsterdam, the shape of the old leg-akkers in the Netherlands can be easily recognized from the air. The Vinkeveense Plassen, halfway between Amsterdam and Utrecht, is an outstanding example of this type of human-made landform.


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© 2008, Cor Snabel and Elizabeth A. Johnson


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