Thursday, 15 July 2021

John Ball and the Peasants' Revolt


Sing, John Ball, and tell it to them all

Long live the day that is dawning

I will crow like a cock, I’ll carol like a lark

In the light that is coming in the morning.

This was part of my introduction to Essex; one of the first songs I sang when I joined a community choir after moving to Chelmsford. It was also the first I’d heard of John Ball. Who was he? And why were we urging him to sing?

A glance at Wikipedia established that John Ball was an English priest who took a prominent part in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The song was written by Sydney Carter in 1981 to mark the 600th anniversary of that event. Sydney Carter, incidentally, was also responsible for a song very familiar from my childhood, “The Lord of the Dance” – possibly the jolliest ever account of the crucifixion. Who would have thought that “They whipped and they stripped and they hung me high,/ And they left me there on the cross to die” could sound so cheery?

“Sing John Ball” doesn’t juxtapose gruesome lyrics with a jaunty tune – both tune and lyrics are pretty upbeat. It’s a song about equality, fraternity, and fellowship. It conjures up a future time, a new dawn, when we’ll all be “ruled by the love of one another”, working harmoniously together.

Labour and spin for fellowship I say

Labour and spin for the love of one another

Labour and spin for fellowship I say

In the light that is coming in the morning.

It’s rather heart-warming. Not a brutal call to arms like the Marseillaise, for example. Something that a community choir can sing without feeling uncomfortable.

And yet when I delved deeper into the history behind it, I found that the events commemorated by this song were far from innocuous. The Peasants’ Revolt was a bloody, brutal uprising, which led to even bloodier and more brutal reprisals by the authorities.

The peasants, artisans and townsfolk undoubtedly had every reason to revolt. The situation of the common people in late-fourteenth-century England was dire. The Black Death had swept through the country in the middle of the century, killing almost half the population. This had made labour more scarce, potentially allowing workers to demand higher pay and choose their employers. Horrified by this development, the ruling classes enacted laws to stop it. In 1349 the Ordinance of Labourers condemned demands for “excessive wages”, and in 1351 the Statute of Labourers set out maximum daily rates for every job, at pre-plague levels, and made it a crime to refuse work: “every person, able in body and under the age of 60 years, not having enough to live upon, being required, shall be bound to serve him that doth require him, or else be committed to gaol […] and […] the old wages shall be given and no more.”[1] This led to massive discontent and efforts to circumvent the new law. In response, employers resorted to prosecutions. By the 1370s, the majority of legal business in the king’s courts involved the labour legislation,[2] fuelling a widespread hatred of the law and its representatives.

Other laws also attempted to stop the lower classes from getting above their station: the sumptuary laws of 1363 restricted what the common people were permitted to eat and wear – for example, no one below the rank of knight or lady was entitled to adorn themselves with fur, and the lower classes were not allowed to wear the extravagantly pointed shoes that were fashionable at the time.

The other crucial feature of the fourteenth century was England’s war in France, an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to assert the English claim to sovereignty over that country. Beginning in 1337, this conflict continued for over a century (the name Hundred Years’ War is an understatement) and drained the country’s financial resources. In the late 1370s, the people’s rage at the oppressive labour laws was exacerbated by a series of poll taxes imposed by Parliament to raise funds for the war. The third of these, decreed in November 1380, was particularly onerous, requiring every person over the age of 15, men and women alike, to pay 12 pence, the equivalent of a month’s wages for many. To avoid paying, many did not register on the local rolls. In response, the government sent out commissioners to investigate and enforce the tax.

This was the trigger for the Peasants’ Revolt. On 30 May 1381, royal commissioners attempted to demand payment of the poll tax from representatives of a number of Essex villages who had gathered in Brentwood. Thomas Baker of Fobbing declared that his village would not pay; others followed his example. Violence was threatened, and the commissioners were forced to flee empty-handed. Messengers travelled from village to village, spreading news of the uprising. The first casualties were three jurors who had informed the authorities of the uprising in Brentwood: they were beheaded and their heads were paraded on poles by the rebels.

In the days that followed, the movement gathered momentum across Essex and Kent. Many of the sites of the action are places that I’ve got to know over the last six years. Here in Chelmsford there was a ceremonial burning of royal records, especially financial ones. In the quiet, picturesque little town of Coggeshall, rebels broke into the home of the sheriff of Essex, destroyed documents, and gave the sheriff a beating. He was lucky to escape with his life; another official, the escheator of Essex, was decapitated.

Cressing Temple Barns is a popular spot for craft fairs and other such events, where I’ve performed “John Ball” with my singing group on at least one occasion. At the time of the revolt this estate was in the possession of the Knights Hospitaller, whose grand prior, Sir Robert Hales, was also the Lord High Treasurer and deeply loathed for his role in imposing the poll tax. The rebels sacked the manor, stole valuables, burned books, pulled down the house and set fire to it. The splendid thirteenth-century barns were left undamaged and are still standing today.

In a number of towns the insurgents stormed castles and freed prisoners. The most famous of these was our hero John Ball, who had been incarcerated in Maidstone earlier that year by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury. Ball was a priest who may or may not have been born and raised in the Colchester area,[3] but had certainly worked as a junior priest at St James’ Church, East Hill, Colchester. He had been excommunicated by Sudbury in 1364 for preaching a radical message of equality, which did not sit well with the wealthy and hierarchically organized church. Sudbury, by the way, was not just the most senior figure in the church, he was also the Lord Chancellor, one of the highest ranking members of government, and had been instrumental in introducing the poll tax.

John Ball speaking to the rebels. Unknown artist, in Froissart, Chronicles.

With Ball as their spiritual leader and Wat Tyler, also originally from Essex, as their general, a large army of mainly Kentish rebels made their way to Blackheath on the south bank of the Thames, where they had been promised a meeting with the king. Despite their hatred of the royal advisors, the rebels were unswerving in their devotion to the king himself, the fourteen-year-old Richard II: their rallying cry was “King Richard and the true commons!” Their fervent belief was that if they could put their grievances to the king in person, he would support them and abandon his supposedly traitorous advisors.

On the morning of 13 June 1381, John Ball reportedly preached to the 50,000 or so rebels assembled at Blackheath. His message was that there was no biblical basis for social hierarchies, and that all goods should belong to everyone. The inspiration for Sydney Carter’s lyrics is obvious:

When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman? […]

Why should we be kept thus in servage? We be all come from one father and one mother, Adam and Eve; whereby can they say or show that they be greater lords than we be […]

They are clothed in velvet and camlet furred with grise, and we be vestured with poor cloth: they have their wines, spices  and good bread, and we have the drawing out of the chaff and drink water: they dwell in fair houses, and we have the pain and travail, rain and wind in the fields.

Ball went on to argue that the corrupt elites were like weeds that had to be eradicated to make way for a new, free society: in short, all the great lords, lawyers, justices and jurors had to be destroyed.[4] If this account by a contemporary chronicler is accurate, then Ball’s sermon was incitement to wholesale slaughter.

Ball’s preaching stirred up the rebels, and the meeting with the king did nothing to calm them. Richard approached the shore in the royal barge, but was too frightened to land. Offered the opportunity to present a petition, the rebels demanded no less than the execution of several royal advisors, including two of those on the barge with Richard, Treasurer Hales and Archbishop Sudbury. Not surprisingly, these demands were not accepted.

Richard on the royal barge, rebels on the shore. Unknown artist, in Froissart, Chronicles.

Furious and disappointed, the rebels headed to London Bridge, which they were allowed to cross with little resistance. Soon after, Aldgate was opened to allow an army of Essex rebels to enter from the east. Their numbers swelled by Londoners, the rebels went on a systematic spree of destruction, attacking the property of particularly unpopular figures and destroying documents associated with the law. They sought out further “traitors” and beheaded eighteen of them that evening, then set up camp around the Tower of London, where Richard and his advisors had taken refuge.

The next critical location was another place very familiar to me – Mile End, where I studied and worked in the 1990s and 2000s. Now a drab urban district dominated by a busy intersection, in the fourteenth century it was an open area a mile from the city of London. On the morning of 14 June Richard summoned the rebels to meet him there, and agreed – no doubt for tactical reasons – to all their demands. These included freedom from serfdom and a rent limit of 4 pence per acre. Many rebels were appeased by the charters offered and returned home to Essex and Kent.

Others, however, had ignored the invitation to Mile End and continued to blockade the Tower. As Archbishop Sudbury was saying mass in the chapel, the rebels managed to enter and began to hunt down their most hated enemies. Sudbury, Hales and two others were dragged out of the fortress and onto Tower Hill, where they were summarily beheaded. The inexpert executioner evidently required several axe blows to finish off the archbishop. The heads of the victims were then carried on poles to Westminster Abbey and back, before being displayed on London Bridge.

Killingof Archbishop Sudbury and others. Froissart, Chronicles.

As the day went on more acts of violence took place, some apparently unrelated to the rebels’ core grievances. The most shocking was the massacre of scores of Flemish residents (estimates range from 40 to 140), a group who had been subject to violence from Londoners in the past. Many were dragged out of churches where they had sought sanctuary, and beheaded in the street.

The next day Richard met the rebels again, this time at Smithfield, where he summoned Wat Tyler to approach him and explain his continued presence in London. Alone and far from his army, Tyler was fatally stabbed by two members of the king’s party – whether this had been the king’s plan is unclear. Before the rebels had realized what was happening, Richard galloped over to them and proclaimed himself their leader and sovereign, leading them further out of the city. In the meantime the London authorities had mustered a respectable military force, beheaded Tyler, and presented his impaled head to the rebel army to demonstrate the end of their hopes. Disheartened, they surrendered to the king and returned home.

Death of Wat Tyler, Richard addresses the rebels. 

Outbreaks of rebellion continued in other parts of the country, but the tide had turned. Richard subsequently revoked all the charters he had issued and ordered severe punishment of the rebels. In the months that followed, thousands were killed for their part in the revolt. In Colchester, a particularly brutal judge appointed ordered so many hangings that new gallows had to be built. On one occasion, nineteen men were reported to have been hanged on a single gibbet.

After the debacle at Smithfield John Ball fled north, but he was captured in Coventry and brought to St Albans for trial. On 15 July 1361 he was hanged, drawn (i.e. disembowelled alive), quartered and beheaded in the presence of the king. Richard had offered to mitigate the punishment by having him hanged to death first (yes, that’s the medieval version of mild sentencing) if he would kneel to the king, but Ball refused.

So a revolt that had started with genuine and legitimate grievances, bringing together a huge number of people with shared hopes and a common purpose, ended in utter disaster. Could there have been any other outcome? The general consensus seems to be that the rebels were condemned to failure by their na├»ve faith in the king, whom they saw as appointed by God. It was this that allowed Wat Tyler to be lured into the ambush at Smithfield, and prevented his army from taking advantage of their superior numbers after his death. In a fictionalization of the events published in 2015, Melvyn Bragg has John Ball experience a flash of insight when he sees the young king riding to Westminster with his courtiers: “The King was not from God. […] The King was no innocent among the wicked. The King was no different from his traitorous councillors around him on horseback now.”[5]

Had the rebels realized this, they might have acted more decisively at crucial moments – and yet if the movement had been openly anti-monarchist from the start it would probably not have gained the popular support that it did.

In any case the revolt failed to bring about any major changes in English society – if anything it condemned the common people to even harsher servitude than before. This, at least, was Richard’s intention: “Rustics you were, and rustics you are still; you will remain in bondage, not as before but incomparably harsher.” And it failed to go down in history as a source of national pride: unlike the 14th of July in France, the 13th of June is not a public holiday or a day of celebration here.

There have, however, been attempts to rehabilitate the Peasants’ Revolt and present it as part of a long history of socialism in England. In the 1880s, five hundred years after the revolt, William Morris painted an idealized picture of the camaraderie of the rebels in A Dream of John Ball. This may have supplied some of the inspiration for Sydney Carter’s song. And the song wasn’t the only commemoration of the 600th anniversary in 1981. A mural painted in Bow Common Lane in East London showed oppressed peasants fighting desperately against fully armed knights on one side and the monarchy, in league with the corrupt church, on the other.[6] And closer to home in Colchester, a plaque was erected and two streets in the Dutch quarter were named after John Ball and Wat Tyler.[7]

Mural by Ray Walker in Bow Common Lane.

The event was also celebrated at the Socialist Workers Party Rally in Skegness, where the journalist and campaigner Paul Foot delivered a stirring speech.[8] He described the revolt as “perhaps the first time the standard of socialism was raised in England”, and emphasized the disciplined, systematic approach of the rebels: “They didn’t burn or loot anywhere at random”; “they acted swiftly and with great restraint”. Foot’s speech makes no mention of the slaughter of the Flemings, and glosses over the other killings carried out during the revolt. Quite reasonably, he notes that the king’s revenge was far more savage than the revolt: “In the rising itself, perhaps a hundred dead, most of them people guilty of the most terrible extortion and exploitation […] In the putting down of the rising, perhaps three thousand dead”.

In 2011, well after the disturbance caused by another unsuccessful poll tax had died down, the Labour-run council of Islington invited residents to vote for the people and places they would like to see commemorated with green “people’s plaques”.  The Peasants’ Revolt was one of the winners, and a plaque was unveiled to mark the site where Highbury Manor, the home of Robert Hales, had been destroyed during the uprising. At the ceremony, veteran socialist campaigner Tony Benn described the Peasants’ Revolt as “the first of a long series of campaigns to secure freedom and democracy in Britain”. Local MP Jeremy Corbyn linked the rising to Islington’s “tradition of dissent”, and made no bones of his approval of the rebels’ actions: “Why did the peasants march here? […] because they were poor and angry at the injustices of the time […] because one of the people who had instituted the poll tax lived here in a big moated house. They thought it was better if he didn’t live in a moated house so they came here and burned it down.”[9]

On 15 July 2015, the anniversary of John Ball’s death, further prominent left-wing or Labour-affiliated figures gathered to unveil a new monument in Smithfield. This time the central role went to film director Ken Loach; former mayor Ken Livingstone was also present. The stone triptych gives the following summary of the events at Smithfield:

At this place on 15th June 1381 Wat Tyler, John Ball and other representatives of the Great Rising met King Richard II to finalise terms for ending the Rebellion.  The King had agreed to all the political reforms aimed at alleviating the plight of the people.  However he and his advisors later reneged on that agreement after killing Tyler in the process near this spot.  John Ball and many others of the Revolt were also later executed.

Between the lines of this description, the following quote from John Ball is inscribed: “Things cannot go on well in England nor ever will until everything shall be in common.  When there shall be neither Vassal nor Lord and all distinctions levelled.”

I don’t believe “Sing John Ball” was performed on this occasion, but it might as well have been. The song is part of a tradition of celebrating John Ball’s message of equality, while downplaying the violence unleashed by his preaching. Perhaps it’s fair to overlook the massacre of the Flemings, which was probably not part of Ball’s and Tyler’s plans.[10] The beheading of the archbishop, the treasurer and many others, however, was clearly integral to their programme.

Were these killings justified? Paul Foot would say yes, and Jeremy Corbyn might agree, but I’m not so sure. It’s partly middle-class squeamishness, I expect;  the same feeling that makes me applaud a well-organized political rally (for a cause I agree with, naturally) but condemn the destruction of property, with two thoughts in mind: What about the effort and resources that have gone into making that? And who’s going to clean up the mess?

I think my choir would probably agree with me. And yet when our current crisis is finally over and we’re allowed to sing together again, I’m sure we’ll all be happy to belt our way through “John Ball”. Regardless of the bloody events behind it, it’s a rousing song - and it's part of our history.


[2] Dan Jones, Summer of Blood: The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (London: Harper, 2009), p. 15.

[3] Brian Bird, a retired clergyman, carried out extensive archival research and concluded that Ball was born in Peldon and came of age in in 1350 before training as a priest in York. See Rebel Before His Time: A Study of John Ball and the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (Worthing: Churchman Publishing, 1987). Dan Jones states that Ball came from York; Wikipedia is non-committal on this point.

[4] Walsingham, Chronicon Angliae, quoted in Brian Bird, Rebel Before His Time, p. 66.

[5] Melvyn Bragg, Now Is the Time (London: Sceptre, 2015), pp. 276-277.


[7] Interestingly, this plaque was subsequently “removed from the wall of a house in John Ball Walk at the request of the resident” (I would love to have read the correspondence around this) then put into storage and lost for several years. It was rediscovered, restored, reinstalled, and unveiled for a second time by the Bishop of Colchester and the human rights campaigner and peer Shami Chakrabarti, chancellor of the local university at the time. Given the pointed refusal of the Archbishop of Canterbury to join in the 1981 commemorations, this could be seen as representing a change in church attitudes – but on the other hand the Church of England has always contained a broad spectrum of views.

[10] On the other hand, it has been argued that killing Flemings really was central to the rebels’ aims, and that its purpose was to assert and shape their English identity. See Erik Spindler, “Flemings in the Peasants’ Revolt, 1381”,


Wednesday, 2 June 2021

Ashes, elms and epidemics

The ash grove, how graceful, how plainly ‘tis speaking/ The harp through it playing has language for me. Growing up in New Zealand, I knew fragments of this song and would sing them on car trips with my family long before I actually ever met an ash tree in real life. When I did so at last, I was underwhelmed. Ashes in full leaf are certainly graceful, but they’ve never really caught my imagination. Not surprisingly, European ash groves evoke no wistful memories of childhood.

The leafless ash, though, is a different story: it’s been my key to a new way of seeing the woods in winter. For years, they were just an indistinguishable mass of bare trunks and branches. Then one day I happened upon a reference in a book to the “jet-black buds” of ash trees. Black buds? I began to look more closely. And lo and behold, walking through my local reserve one day, I found a tree that did indeed have bold, black buds. And then another! A whole grove of them! It wasn’t just the colour that was distinctive, it was the shape, the energetic upward curve of the twigs, the symmetrical cluster of the three buds at the tip, vaguely reminiscent of the club in a pack of cards. Suddenly I was seeing them everywhere, and many of the gnarled old trees I’d taken to be oaks turned out to have been ashes all along.

Since that discovery I’ve seen the winter woodland with different eyes. It’s no longer an undifferentiated and uninspiring background, but a varied cast of characters. I can’t identify them all, but it’s an enjoyable challenge. The clues are not just in the buds, but in the bark, the trunk, the arrangement of branches and twigs, the tell-tale leftovers of previous seasons: catkins and cones, clusters of winged seeds or “keys”. Some ashes – presumably those that bear female flowers, or flowers of both sexes (the sex life of ashes is complicated, to say the least) – are draped with untidy looking keys throughout the winter. It’s not their most attractive feature. Come spring, they put on a curious display of flowers: sprays of green stalks with purplish tips. Not the kind of obvious beauty that will win prizes in flower shows, but rather fascinating.

Ash buds. Crabchick on flickr,

Ash flower. Dean Morley on flickr,

Old ash in Admiral's Park, Chelmsford

The same tree close-up

Hollow ash on bank of the Wid

Another tree that I’ve discovered fairly late in life is the elm. I didn’t expect to find elm trees when I came to Europe; I assumed they’d all been wiped out by Dutch elm disease. News of that disaster had made it all the way to my science classroom in New Zealand in the 1980s. But then while visiting friends in Wales a few years ago I spotted a majestic tree with round, winged seeds and curious asymmetrical leaves, one side extending further down the stem than the other. I took a leaf home to compare with my tree guide, and was delighted to learn that this was an elm. Since then I’ve found more elms in hedgerows and parks around Chelmsford, though none anywhere near the size of that tree in Llanberis.[1]

These smaller trees are inconspicuous in summer, melting into the background greenery. They’re at their most striking in spring, when abundant clusters of winged seeds appear on bare branches. From a distance an elm in fruit looks as though it’s covered in pale green blossom. It’s a lovely sight, and this spring I’ve seen more and more of it on roadsides near Chelmsford. My latest elm-related discovery, though, is the preceding phase: the flowers. They’re easy to overlook, but unmistakeable once you’ve found them. It was only this spring, in early March, that I noticed a few twigs with small red flowers in my local reserve. What could this be, and why had I never seen it before? A flick through my Collins Gem tree guide quickly brought enlightenment: it was an elm! In the weeks that followed I was able to observe the flowers morphing into fruits, a remarkable transformation.

My elation at discovering elms was short-lived. On Easter Day I was cycling around the countryside excitedly pointing them out to my companions (could this have been a little annoying, I wonder?). Soon after that, I noticed that one of the elms in my local nature reserve was surrounded by dead trees of a similar height and build. Slender young trees, which had clearly not died of old age. As the spring progressed, the difference between the living and the dead became more and more obvious. I gradually realized that for every healthy-looking fruit-laden elm I spotted in a hedgerow, there seemed to be one or more gaunt skeletons nearby.

I take this as sobering evidence that Dutch elm disease is still active and the species hasn’t made a miraculous comeback. So what is this disease, and why is it “Dutch”? It turns out that it didn’t originate in the Netherlands, nor does it particularly affect the species known as the Dutch elm. Somewhat unusually, it got its name from the nationality of the scientists who first identified it in the 1910s. It is caused by two related fungi, spread by elm bark beetles. The first epidemic, from around 1910 to the 1940s, killed up to forty per cent of the elms in some European countries. The second was much more severe, killing an estimated two thirds of mature elms in the UK (some 20 million trees) in the decade following its accidental introduction in the late 1960s. Most of the rest had succumbed by the early 1980s. It must have been a heartbreaking time for European tree lovers, and I’m glad I wasn’t around to witness it. Today new elms keep growing up, mostly in hedgerows, many suckering from the roots of dead giants. But the disease is still lurking, and it seems that once these young trees reach a certain height the bark beetles can see them and come in to feed, bringing the fungus with them. All that hopeful growing for nothing.

Dutch elm disease is an old and well-known enemy, but there’s a much more recent addition to the ranks of villainous tree-killing fungi, and this one is going after the ash tree. Not surprisingly, given the fate of the elm, there’s a considerable amount of anxiety about the resulting disease, ash dieback or Chalara. The Woodland Trust gloomily predicts that it will kill around 80% of ash trees across the UK; other estimates are even higher. The disease was first identified in 2006, by which time it was already widespread in continental Europe. The UK, however, continued to import ash saplings from affected countries until 2012, when the first cases were found here. This led to a sudden panicked response, with a ban on imports, the destruction of 100,000 nursery trees and saplings, and a meeting of the UK’s emergency committee. Too little too late, some have said – does this sound at all familiar?

I only heard about ash dieback a couple of years ago and I’ve so far been fairly unconcerned, since most of the ash trees I see around me look pretty healthy. Just this spring, however, I’ve started to wonder. One striking fact about ash is that it’s one of the last trees to come into leaf in spring, and this being an extraordinarily late spring, they’re not quite there yet. Most trees are now in partial leaf, but some are still almost bare.  And looking at those bare trees, I’m having my doubts. In the young, planted ash grove in my local nature reserve, there are a few trees that are unquestionably dead, bark already peeling off, no signs of life. Others look as though they might still be dormant – yet those black buds have a slightly dry and shrivelled look. And elsewhere in the reserve I’ve noticed that some of the mature ashes have a surprising number of dead branches. Walking through the reserve recently, I started to look at the emerging leaves with a sense of anxiety – is it just a late spring, or are these trees actually unwell? It reminded me somewhat of waiting for a  teenager to come home at night: as the evening wears on you become increasingly anxious and begin to fear the worst – and then at some point the child appears, slightly tipsy but otherwise unharmed, and life goes on. Here’s hoping those ash trees that are starting to worry me will soon be covered in healthy foliage, and I can put away my fears until next spring.

It seems there’s little we can do about these diseases. Human intervention – importing elm logs from North America and ash saplings from continental Europe – has introduced these pests, but human intervention seems more or less powerless to help their victims. In the case of Dutch elm disease, felling affected trees has been the main strategy. Trimming the elms in hedgerows to keep them out of the sight of elm bark beetles also seems somewhat effective, but of course this means they will never develop their full potential as tall and stately trees. As for ash dieback, the Woodland Trust recommends that we clean our shoes or bike tyres after visiting the woods to avoid spreading spores. This will sound painfully familiar to anyone who’s lived in the northern part of New Zealand in recent years, where the efforts to stop kauri dieback have hugely restricted access to the forest. As a keen walker with an aversion to boot cleaning, I find this sensible advice rather hard to swallow, but I suppose it’s a small price to pay if it does help combat the disease. Now where is that scrubbing brush?

Elm flowers, Chelmer Valley LNR, early March 2021

Elm in fruit, Chelmer Valley LNR, mid April 2021

Elm fruit, early May 2021

Elm fruit and leaves, late May 2021

Rare mature elm found in Chelmer Valley LNR, late May 2021

Leaves of above tree

Fallen twig from above tree with fruit

[1] Which species of elms am I seeing, and are they all the same? The Collins Gem has two main options, English and wych elm (Ulmus procera and Ulmus glabra respectively); the flowers look similar but the fruits and the leaves are slightly different, and appear in a different sequence: leaves first for English elm, fruit first for wych elm. I can’t find mention of this elsewhere. If the Gem is right then most of the elms I’m seeing are probably wych elms. There are other options, though. Many of the small elms I’ve seen have strangely ridged bark, even on quite slender twigs. It seems this “winged” or “corky” bark is particularly typical of the Dutch elm (Ulmus x hollandica) and the small-leaved elm, also known as the field elm (Ulmus minor). If any readers know more, please get in touch!

Friday, 14 May 2021

Burning biomass. Part 2: The forests


Britain destroyed most of its forests hundreds of years ago. Alongside a myriad of other uses, countless trees were felled to fuel iron smelters and build battleships. At present only about 13 % of the UK’s land area is wooded, compared to a world average of 31 %.[1] Needless to say, when the UK began to convert coal-burning power plants to biomass, we were never going to be burning British trees. Even if the entire output of the UK’s forestry industry were to be poured into Drax’s maw, this would not be enough to cover its consumption.

In countries blessed with greater forest coverage, canny entrepreneurs have seized the opportunity created by European energy policies and have rapidly built up a massive pellet-producing industry. This is most striking in the south-eastern US, the source of 65 % of Drax’s pellets in 2019. Twenty-three wood pellet mills now operate here, three of them owned by Drax itself. Enviva, the world’s largest producer of wood pellets and Drax’s biggest supplier, has acquired or built nine pellet mills in this area, all of them since the passing of the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive in 2009. Several more mills, with even greater capacity, are at various stages of the planning process.[2]

What exactly goes into these pellet mills? As mentioned in my previous post, Drax claims that its pellets are “largely made up of low-grade wood produced as a by-product of the production and processing of higher value wood products, like lumber and furniture”. Biomass UK, the trade association for the industry, similarly talks about “residues”. This is in fact nonsense: residues from the timber industry such as bark and twigs may be used as fuel in pellet processing, but they do not produce high-quality pellets, and there is ample documentary evidence that wood pellets are mostly or entirely made from whole trees.[3] Impressive aerial photographs of pellet plants show thousands of tree trunks stacked outside, waiting to be processed.[4]

The other major claim made by Drax is that its pellets come from “sustainably managed working forests”. What does this mean? I can imagine two scenarios for sustainably managed forests: one is established, natural forests, from which a small number of trees are selectively felled without any major disturbance to the overall forest environment; the other is pine plantations so vast that the quantity felled is constantly replenished by new trees. In fact neither scenario represents the real situation. The demand for wood pellets, driven by the fashion for “low-carbon” biomass (see my previous post for the truth behind this), is so great and has arisen so suddenly that a careful, one-tree-at-a-time type of forestry has no hope of keeping up, and the output of established plantations has also been outpaced. Instead what has happened, and is still happening, is the clear-felling (or in some countries the increasingly rapacious “selective” felling) of natural, diverse old-growth forests. If these are replaced at all, it is with quick-growing monocultures of pine.

This is a tragedy on a huge scale, which is being played out in numerous locations around the world. In the south-eastern US, substantial tracts of mature hardwood forest, known as “bottomland” forest, have been destroyed to feed the pellet mills. These are deciduous forests in low-lying, frequently flooded land near rivers – imagine tall trees with buttressed trunks, rising out of the still, dark water of wetlands. These forests are complex and immensely valuable ecosystems, home to an enormous variety of plants and animals. Indeed this area, the North American Coastal Plain, has been declared a World Biodiversity Hotspot. Bottomland forest also provides essential “ecosystem services” to humans, reducing the risk of flooding, and improving water quality.[5] It is estimated that 80 % of these forests have disappeared in the last two hundred years. Most of what remains belongs to private landowners, and only 10 % of it is protected. [6]

It is this fragmentation and lack of protection that has allowed Enviva and other pellet manufacturers to prosper. Enviva, like Drax, makes a very persuasive attempt to greenwash its activities. Its stated purpose is to “displace coal, grow more trees, and fight climate change”. “Climate change,” it announces, “is the greatest challenge of our time. Enviva was founded to be part of the solution.” Its website shows an idyllic image of forest-clad hills bathed in sunlight, and its argument is essentially that if Enviva were not there to buy wood, nobody would have any incentive to grow trees. By providing a market for “low-value wood”, and insisting that the landowners “commit to return their land to forest after harvest”, Enviva says it is preventing this land from being converted to other uses. “Keeping forests as forests” is one of its mantras.

This is an unbelievably cynical claim. Much of the hardwood forest now being clear-felled to feed Enviva’s mills consists of pockets of woodland that have been left standing by generations of farmers, on the low-lying edges of their farms, because the land is not viable for agricultural use. So in many cases there is little danger of it being cleared to grow crops. Nor are these remote tracts of swampland desirable real estate for shopping malls and golf courses. In other words, if it weren’t for the pellet industry there is every chance that these trees would remain standing, as they have for many decades.

Furthermore, Enviva’s claims about “keeping forests as forests” are based on the assumption that any kind of forest cover is equally valuable. This is simply not the case. A mixed-species, self-regenerating natural forest that has been growing for many decades or centuries cannot be “replaced” in any meaningful way by a single-species plantation which will be felled as soon as it is viable, after as little as fifteen years.[7] The range of plant life that thrives in a natural forest – the moss, ferns, flowers and creepers – need many years of undisturbed existence to develop. Fungi, insects, birds and mammals need a range of shelter types and food sources that only an established forest can provide – including dead and decaying trees. A tree farm is not a forest – or at best it’s a “fake forest”.[8]  

Quite apart from the loss of irreplaceable forest habitats, the wood pellet industry causes severe local pollution. This is hardly surprising given the processes involved. The tree trunks are delivered to the plant by heavy logging trucks, then debarked and shredded in hammermills, a noisy process that goes on around the clock. The next step is to dry the wood, using heat produced by burning wood and bark. This combustion generates greenhouse gases, while the wood chips emit harmful VOCs (volatile organic compounds) as they dry, as well as at other stages in the process. A report in 2018 found that “The 21 wood pellet mills exporting to Europe emit a total of 16,000 tons of health-threatening air pollutants per year, including more than 2,500 tons of particulate matter (soot), 3,200 tons of nitrogen oxides, 2,100 tons of carbon monoxide, and 7,000 tons of volatile organic compounds. These plants also emit 3.1 million tons of greenhouse gases annually”.[9]

People living near the mills are affected by noise and dust pollution, are unable to sit on their own front porches without wearing face masks,[10] and suffer from an increase in respiratory diseases.[11] The presence of the mills exacerbates existing social inequalities: most are located in poor communities with a high proportion of minority ethnic groups, and their operations – while purporting to bring jobs and prosperity – in fact diminish the quality of life of these communities.[12] A number of grassroots organizations have sprung up to combat this polluting industry, and in partnership with larger NGOs they have won some victories. In 2019, for example, Enviva was forced to install equipment to reduce air pollution in its wood pellet plant in Richmond County, North Carolina. In February 2021 Drax was fined 2.5 million US dollars for major environmental violations at its pellet plant in Mississippi. This is an encouraging result, but the fine has been aptly described as “a drop in the bucket compared to the 2 million [GBP] per day the UK government hands the company in the form of biomass subsidies”.[13]

Campaigners on both sides of the Atlantic are working tirelessly to try to stop this madness. Key players in the US are Dogwood Alliance, the Southern Environmental Law Center, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. In the UK, the campaign group most strongly focused on this issue is Biofuelwatch. These UK and US organizations have joined forces in the campaign Cut Carbon Not Forests, which urges the public to “stop the UK from harming our planet’s forests” by calling for a end to biomass electricity subsidies. Such efforts to raise public awareness can bear fruit: in 2020 an opinion poll in the Netherlands showed that 98 % of citizens favoured ending subsidies for biomass, and in February 2021, the Dutch government agreed to reject future subsidies.[14] Could this happen in the UK too?

Existing natural forests and wetlands are not renewable; they are irreplaceable. Not only are they vital for the protection of biodiversity, they are also our first line of defence against climate change. Burning them in the name of sustainability makes no sense at all. We should certainly be planting new trees – both to supply our other timber needs (more on this another time!) and to increase permanent forest cover – but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this will make up for destroying mature trees and all the life that depends on them. A fundamentally good intention – that of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels and nuclear power – has led to horrifying consequences. The mass production and consumption of wood pellets is bad for local communities and environments, bad for biodiversity, and disastrous from a climate change perspective. It has to stop.


Neil Wellons on Flickr,

Wndy on Flickr,

Special thanks to Jack Spruill, who first drew my attention to this issue and has given me an insight into the situation in North Carolina, as well as making helpful suggestions on this and my previous post.


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