Landscape change and energy transformation: 1600-1800

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Prehistory & Roman Middle Ages Early Modern period Modern period

Between 1700 and 1800, in common with other early modern societies, British society developed new capability, efficiency, stability, and durability which laid the foundations for the Agricultural revolution. New, complex, large-scale organizations that enhanced human capacity for collective action mobilized and directed the rising flow of natural resources arose during this period. There was a general desire in many European societies to increase their wealth and power by trans­forming the natural world. This was no more apparent then in the British Isles, the first country in the world that would make the first full transition to an industrialized society. For this reason this timeline will mainly focuse on the British Isles and the environmental changes that occurred during the transition from low energy society to an high energy consuming society which occurred during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Population trend
Long term population trend in England and Wales

Agriculture: the basis

During the early modern centuries, the societies of the British Isles un­derwent some important changes. Human numbers swelled threefold, from around 5 million in 1500 to about 16 million in 1800, in spite of sustained out-migration to North America and the Caribbean.

This was a pattern that repeated itself around the North Sea Basin, France and to a lesser extent the German lands.

Agricultural production was increased trough four developments:

Introduction of new crops and practices. These included pulses, parsnip and most importantly clover. The latter was used as fodder but it also brought nitrogen into the soil, thus fertilizing the soil. This meant that more intensive continuous rotation regimes could be adopted and thus food production could increase.

Mechanization but also experimentation with new breading techniques à  Jethro Tull

  • Jethro Tull (1674-1741), important English innovator
  • Plow horses instead of slower oxen
  • Drilling equipment (seed drill), not sowing by hand
  • Selective breeding of livestock

By 1770 English farmers producing 300% more food than in 1700, only 14% increase on farm workers.

Increase wasl also due to new landscape organization.

Enclosed landscape
Enclosed landscape

New organization of land use: enclosure.

Enclosure meant that village-controlled land and wooded wasteland was converted to individually owned, bounded, perma­nent pasture for cattle and sheep. Only the highest and most barren tracts of the wasteland were left unenclosed. This change encouraged the spread of dispersed farmsteads away from nucleated villages. Those who lost out were undertenants, who were given small allotments determined by their landlords, and squatters, who received no allotments of land. All the lesser folk in the manor lost access to most of the highly productive common graz­ing land in the parish. So, the new landowners profited handsomely from enclosing the land.

The landscape changed from being open into a compartmentalized patchwork of fields enclosed with hedgerows and dry stone walls. These became habitats and corridors of biological migration, the main ecological framework of the British landscape.

Reclamation and cultivation of marginal grounds such as uplands and swamps.
Examples are the hills of the Cheviots, the Pennines and the Fens in East Anglia, the latter were drained by Dutch engineers in the mid 17th century and caused the same problems as in Holland: sinking peat and therefore they had to bring in technology to stay dray and save the newly won agricultural land.

In general population pressure drove expansion of arable land in Tudor and Stuart England. Woodlands, forests, moors and other thinly inhabited lands were colonized, reclaimed and settled.

Forest depletion and responses: management and coal

One of the most formidable problem facing modern Europe was deforestation. A world without wood would mean that most buildings, funiture and even entire cities could not exist. In the early modern period it was even more extreme. The most important machines of the era, windmills, were largely made out of wood, as were houses and ships. A warship in the late 17th century needed 3500 trees aged 80 to 120 years old.

In addition wood was an important source of fuel to heat and cook things. In addition charcoal was needed for the production of iron.

Despite the obvious dependency on wood, Europeans cleared forests to create arable land to feed a growing population, placing pressure on the forests.

In total, forests covered less than 10% of the land surface area in Britain and in the Low Countries it was even lower. Already by the 17th century, most of the largest mammals had disappeared, for example the beaver and wolf, both these species became extinct by the late 1600s. Large areas of Scotland, the Low Countries and Denmark were entirely destitute of trees, the inhabitants were forced to use peat or coal for fuel and to import Scandinavian timber for construction.

The coppicing cycle. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Increasingly, people enclosed and managed their woodlands by coppicing to obtain sustainable supplies of fuel for charcoal for gunpowder and iron making, and for tanbark and oak to split for basket weaving.


Charcoal production
Charcoal production in the 18th century.

New techniques also led to increased energy efficiency, e.g. charcoal production, of which fast quantities of charcoal was needed. Around industrial cities such as Sheffield in England, woodlands were carefully managed to sustain the cities stel production. This was soo efficient that the inferior fule of coal did not replace charcoal until the 1820s.

Despite these conservation measures and improved techniques for charcoal production, the forests steadily gave way to agriculture and intensified grazing as well as charcoal production.


Coal: entering the age of fossil fuel

The response to the wood shortage was the shift to a new fuel: coal. Britain had enough of it and there were many seams at the surface, easy to exploit, especially in the Tyneside area around Newcastle. Most of this coal was transported to London.

But with the increased use of coal air pollution also increased. The proliferating coal fires emitted a lot of dense, sulfur-laden, smoke that gave London its well-known smoky gray atmosphere. By the mid-17th century, the air pollution in London had reached such proportions that it did not go unnoticed. John Evelyn, one of the creat mind of the day and advocate for forest regeneration, wrote with only slight exaggeration that:

... London was enveloped in such a cloud of sea-coal, as if there be a resemblance of hell upon earth, it is in this volcano in a foggy day: this pestilent smoak, which corrodes the very yron [iron], and spoils all the moveables, leaving a soot on all things that it lights: and so fatally seizing on the lungs of the inhabitants, that cough and consumption spare no man.

Two years later, in his polemic Fumfugium, a treatise on London' air pollution, he claimed that the the harmful effects of coal smoke turned drying clothes black, tarnished paintings, corrodedbuildings , water became undrinkable, and especially, human health deteriorated. It was a warning that foreshadowed the environmental effects of industrialisation on cities around the globe.