Dutch peat cultures

This blogpost is compiled by Kate Foster, incorporating information from Dr. Roy van Beek (Home Turf Project, Wageningen University) and Martin Versteeg (Scheepsvaart Museum in Amsterdam).

This is an introduction to Dutch peat cultures with suggestions of places to visit.

As mentioned in the last post, a Dutch workforce introduced a system of drains and rows to Southern Scotland, using new kinds of hand tools. This industrialised approach was a response to rising demand for peat in Scotland, including as litter for horses working in the cities. André Berry (a speaker from Natural England) described this at Annan Museum, in his overview of the long history of peat use in Britain and the changing technologies of peat extraction.

I was intrigued by this Dutch reference. I often visit the Netherlands but have never been introduced to its peat cultures. I have much to learn! Extensive raised bogs developed across the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany in the Holocene, just as they did in Scotland.

Earlier this month I was pleased to meet members of the Home Turf Project – a new interdisciplinary project at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.  This five-year project will offer ‘an integrated approach to the long-term development, cultural connections and heritage management of Dutch raised bogs.’ Dr. Roy van Beek is leading different studies on how bog landscapes can be followed through time, and how these patterns relate to human activity, focusing on the ‘upland’ parts of eastern Netherlands and neighbouring countries.

“The large majority of Dutch bogs (over 90%) has already disappeared due to peat-cutting and reclamations, and the remainder is under major threat from climate change, agriculture, desiccation and pollution. Therefore we aim to design proactive strategies for the sustainable management of bog-related cultural remains.”

Ref: http://www.boglandscapes.eu/project.html (Accessed 19.7.2018)

Historically, there were two main Dutch peat cutting areas. In the northeast,  hoogveen, or “high peat” (similar to rasied bog or mire) was extracted. In the western and cetnral areas the Dutch also cut laagveen – or “low peat” – which lay under the water level. This could be called fen in English. In Dutch this kind of land is known as the veenweidegebied.

My ideas for a future Peat Cultures tour of the eastern “high peat” grew with the help of the Home Turf team. Furthermore, Martin Versteeg (librarian at the Scheepsvaart Museum in Amsterdam), kindly provided information about the maritime history of “low peat” extraction in the west of the country.

The Dutch word for peat is veen, and many place-names bear witness to its historic presence.

The Bourtangerveen was an extensive area straddling the north-eastern Dutch province of Drenthe and Lower Saxony in Germany. It was originally perhaps 3000 km square; now 140 km2 have been restored to form a trans-boundary nature reserve called the Bargerveen.  Restored landscape can also be seen at a reserve at Fochteloerveen (of interest to birders too). You can also see peatlands in the Belgian Hautes Fagnes . The Veenpark museum features historical methods of peat extraction.

Peat was used for fuel and construction. Extraction has stopped in the Netherlands but memories and traces of peat digging and peat culture survive. When I started asking about peat, in-laws and friends told various stories. One grandfather had to travel away from home to dig peat for a wage when the farm income was low. Other family members had been involved in the trade in peat. The poverty, and also the radical politics surrounding peat-digging in the nineteenth century, was remembered. This is shown in a recent musical inspired by a book by Suzanna Jansen based on her family history; the title translates as ‘Pauper’s Paradise’ and is set in a Benevolent Society colony (that later served as a prison).

To travel further back in time, the Drenthe museum in Assen has a collection of prehistoric artefacts as well as bog-bodies, of whom the Yde Girl is the most famous. The Emsland Moor Museum in Germany is another place for peatland historians to visit.

Laagveen was extracted by being dredged, until the invention of mechanical peat cutters.

Image of mechanical peat cutter courtesy of Martin Versteeg / Vinkeveen Museum

The following quote shows that even with the new machines, much labour went into extracting low peat:


 “These machines cut large quantities of peat along the logger using a sort of cage with a sharp bottom end that was pushed a few meters deep into the peat and hoisted, full of peat, and dumped into the ship where it was mixed with water to swallow. Subsequently, it was poured onto the layers through the drain pipe between mounted partitions. There the peat slice was dried and then crushed by peat-workers with flat wooden shoes and sticks for both hands to prevent falling into the peat, then cut and put on piles to dry further. The low peat had a fixed size of about 150x60x60 mm.
The dried peat pieces were transported into a ship with the aid of wicker baskets and transported to the buyers; peat was called brown gold at that time, similar to the current oil.”

Martin Versteeg, Scheepsvaart Museum, Amsterdam.

The last peat cutter will in due course be redisplayed at Veenmuseum Vinkeveen (the museum is currently relocating). The image below, from the 1740s, shows the older dredging technique.

Photo credit: Martin Versteeg, of a painting by  J.G. Philips,  1741, Vinkeveen Museum.

The turf was transported by boat which, according to the image below, could also be an arduous process.

Photo credit: Martin Versteeg, of an image in Scheepsvaartmuseum Sneek.

Maritime history for the peat industry can be found at the Scheepvaartmuseum Sneek in the northern province of Friesland. In Amsterdam you can walk by boats moored next to the Scheepsvaartmuseum several of which were involved in transporting peat.

Photo of the bows of the klipperaak “Anna” moored in Amsterdam and built in 1911, used mainly to transport peat from Zwartsluis and Kampen.
Photo of the stevenaak “Maria” moored in Amsterdam and built in 1879 and used in the Zwolle area to transport mainly peat between 1925 and 1958.

You can also access the resource of www.maritiemdigitaal.nl.

And how have contemporary artists responded? One project took place in 2003; an international group of artists were commissioned to respond to the Dutch peat landscape, with the project PeatPolis documented here.

André Berry also made the point that as we look at the landscape now, it is hard to conceive just how expansive peatlands were prior to industrialised reclamation and extraction. Learning about some of the techniques used is one way to help imagine what has been removed from the landscape.

I am solely responsible for any inadvertent errors in this blogpost; please feel welcome to leave a comment or contact me by email.

Kate Foster  art@meansealevel.net









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