Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Uncertain Times Ahead

I’ve mentioned in the past how so many quarries have been lost over the last few years due to the continuous state of our fragile building economy. With so many projects shelved since the Government’s punitive austerity measures it should, perhaps, not be a surprise.

And yet when the current situation improves and we pull out of recession, will the investment and, just as important, the will be there to reopen some of these quarries or will it be seen to be prudent to import material from abroad, whether in its raw material form or, as seems likely, as a processed and finished product?

So many quarries have now shut that some of the most significant inland venues for vertebrate material have already been lost forever. This tragedy is magnified when coupled with the important geological exposures and successions that have also been lost. Simply put, within a very short period of time, the only vertebrate fossil localities that aren’t coastal may very well be a few survivors that are increasingly less inclined to permit access to both geologists and palaeontologists.

And now comes news that one of the last two brick works still operating in the Oxford Clay is to close with the loss of 56 jobs. In reality, the site is officially being mothballed but I fear that this particular works will not reopen. From our point of view, this is worrying since the clay for this works originally came from Quarry 4 and now from Quarry 5.

There have been brick works in the area since the 1800’s and this particular works was still making the famous Fletton brick which has seen a decline in demand for some years now. From a peak of 3,000 million in 1942, demand last year was less than half that figure and has continued to drop by 3% a year.

The Fletton brick is mainly used for repair and maintenance of existing buildings and not for new projects. Something called a flat set brick is now the building brick of choice and the last remaining brick works in the entire area is now due to have significant investment to set up flat set brick production. Quite where this leaves the mothballed site is uncertain at this time.

The fact that investment is being ploughed back into the remaining works is a positive since this should secure the jobs of the bulk of the 269 remaining employees although with proposed shift changes and other “adjustments”, there may yet be further job losses.

So what does this mean for Quarry 5 and the future Quarry 6? Obviously clay is still required for the one remaining brick works, so Quarry 5 will continue to be worked albeit, you would imagine, at a reduced capacity. The next few years are pivotal to the business and would dictate if and when Quarry 6 would need to be opened. If the mothballed works were to be reopened in the future then, all being well, demand for clay would almost certainly increase to levels previously required. At the moment, everything is up in the air so to speak.

From our point of view then, access is being curtailed with immediate effect and the future, instead of being filled with optimism, is now once more filled with not knowing. Indeed, our main champion and supporter of all things palaeontological is one of the casualties of the closure and we are bitterly saddened for him. One thing is certain, however, and that is gaining access to the quarries has just been made a hundred times more difficult than it ever was and I have to admit that denial of entry seems to be the most likely outcome. We will have to wait and see what happens in the short term before planning our next steps.


emailmark said...

It is indeed a very sad litany when one reads the list of quarries that have closed in recent years. Whenever I read through the palaeontological literature, the quarry location names are always especially evocative -think of Stonesfield, Woodeaton, Bensted, Stewartby, - all now gone. That list is just some of the famous slate, clay and limestone locales which have borne dinosaur, marine reptile and other fossils - how long would be the list if the Coal Measures pits were added?

It would make a very interesting (but depressing) project to trace the closures across the UK since the late 1700's. We can only hope that some opportunities will remain in the future but you only have to see where the major finds are occurring nowadays to realise that the heyday of UK (inland)fossil discovery is over, and has been for some years. The irony is that the British Isles has the most complete exposures through geological time of anywhere on earth!

Mark Wildman said...

Thanks for your comment and so well put. Dale Russell once said that if the British mainland was as exposed as the badlands are in North America, then it would be one of the richest dinosaur bearing formations in the world.

Incidentally, we visited Woodeaton a couple of years ago. Apart from loads of brachiopods, we found nothing of significance but the quarry was rapidly getting overgrown and the famous White Limestone and Forest Marble exposures were disappearing rapidly from view. I believe that the quarry has recently been sold and am unaware what the future plans are for the venue.

Coastal exposures are, of course, going to be more important than ever. But they are constantly scavenged because they are more or less open to all. The Isle of Wight has lost some really significant finds over the last few years to private collectors and those wishing to make a profit and, unfortunately, this will almost certainly be the continual trend for years to come.

Perhaps its time for a Bureau of Land Management for the UK and an introduction of an Archaeological/Palaeontological Resources Protection Act similar to the US? I feel another post coming on......

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