It has required moving wildlife, building “bat hotels” and planting 40,000 replacement trees. But after more than a year of construction, Britain’s first metals mine for more than four decades is nearing completion.
On the edge of Dartmoor, in Devon, cranes loom over the steel skeleton of a shed as long as a football pitch and 25m high. Within months a complex circuit will begin to process the local rock and liberate the tiny fraction, less than 0.2 per cent, that matters.
The tungsten that Wolf Minerals will mine here is worth almost $30,000 per tonne: enough for a business with $100m in annual revenues.
Tungsten is one of the hardest of elements, seven times heavier than water and used in toolmaking and armaments. The Devon deposit was mined during the first and second world wars, but before Wolf spotted the opportunity to acquire the mining licence, the last serious exploration took place in the 1980s, before China’s explosive industrial growth.
The process plant, the nearby tailings dam for waste rock and the big open pit itself are the essential “kit” of a modern metal mine. They are familiar from Australia to Zambia but not in the UK, where such mining has been all but extinct in recent decades. The closure of almost all Britain’s collieries after a bitter 1980s strike further loosened the country’s bond with mining, and while London remains a centre for global mining finance, the projects are usually thousands of miles away.
Most tungsten deposits are in China but the country is now importing the metal to preserve its reserves. The Devon mine — named Drakelands — will generate about 3.5 per cent of global supply.
Russell Clark, Wolf’s managing director, says the project has “the potential to be the biggest tungsten mine in the western world.”
In building its mine Wolf is confronting some of the problems the UK often presents for intrusive infrastructure projects, including planning constraints. It employs more environmental staff than geologists.
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