Peat Cuttings

17 June 2021

Around two years ago El Tel and I were walking on the west side of the moor near Bleak House. In the distance we saw a slightly surreal sight, two diggers. Too far to get to we were perplexed by how they could possibly have got there and what on earth they were doing. 

A year or so on we saw piles of stacked stakes and other timber, around Hanging Stone Hill. Around Hanging Stone Hill and White Horse Hill (the site of the amazing Bronze Age cist) we saw pools that looked slightly square. We did not put these thing together until we heard about the peat recovery scheme. 

Go back 45 years or so when I did Ten Tors, I remember walking through an eerie black landscape where peat had been cut so deep that the sides were way above my head and there were columns left around ten feet high. Ten years ago on a moorland trek from west to east Terry came across it too and the memory is indelible for both of us. This last year we have had some fabulous walks on the moor and have been trying to find this again – to no avail. 

What we have found were numerous peat cuttings by a Mr Philpotts around 1900 – many marked by memorial stones – where he had had cuts made through the peat for the benefit of hunting men and the movement of cattle. Of course people have cut peat on the moor for burning for hundreds if not thousands of years. In addition, in the nineteenth century peat was cut commercially with the intention of using it for many things, including creating naphtha to light Dartmoor Prison. The area above Lydford was particularly harvested with the building of the Rattlebrook Railway to bring the product down to the station at Bridestowe. I have read that the then Prince of Wales visited the project in 1921. 

What was not realised for a long time was the effect of these things on the peat itself and the water that flows from it. Peat takes thousands of years to form and is “the most efficient carbon sink on the planet” according to Wikipedia. I understand that some of the effects of the cuttings are that the water essential to healthy peat was flowing out too quickly leading to more erosion and more damage to the peat. Too much peat has therefore dried out and died, so to speak. Another effect is that the water flowing through the peat areas too quickly means more erosion, greater risk of flooding down stream and expensive water purification. 

Which is why we saw diggers and piles of wood. This is a project between Dartmoor National Park and South West Water, replicated on other moors such as Exmoor, Bodmin and further afield, to slow the loss of water so that the peat can hold it. Dams are being built under the ground – not big ones, but lots of them to restrain the water. There is a link on Dartmoor National Park’s website The South West Peatland Project | Dartmoor which explains it. The scheme has attracted some controversy, Dr. Tom Greeves recently wrote an article for the Western Morning News castigating the work but we had the privilege of seeing the work at close hand. 

We were stumbling around (common to our expeditions) south of Cranmere Pool and kept seeing faint signs of caterpillar tracks and odd flags on bamboo sticks – how weird we thought. We then came across the two diggers and several people milling about. One came across and it transpired that she was Morag Angus and in charge of the project. She explained all about it including that the diggers could go virtually anywhere and that because of the spread of their soft caterpillar tracks, put less pressure on the ground than we did in our walking boots. 

A man walking up and down with what looked like a metal detector had the job of marking (red flags) areas which must not be touched because of potential left over military ordinance. Other coloured flags marked sites of potential archaeological interest – similarly not to be touched. Morag kindly explained the research over several years of the possible effects of the work and these showed growth in other types of plant life indigenous to Dartmoor which might mean a reduction in that near monoculture of dead white grass (purple moor grass or Molinia caerulea to you possibly but the stuff we continually stumble over which catches light so easily at this time of year) and increases in wildlife.
We watched the diggers do their work for a while – it stopped 31 March until the end of August because of the nesting season – and then stumbled up towards White Horse Hill and Hanging Stone Hill. Here we saw more mature pools that had been formed – and the famous cist in a peat hill that has reduced dramatically from when the dig was made ten years ago. 

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