Hearths on fire: UK residents incensed by pollution from wood burners

If you’re looking to perfect your rural idyll, you can’t go wrong with a wood burner. A mainstay of glamorous Instagram “cottagecore” accounts and Airbnb listings with a cachet somewhere between an Aga and a yurt, they produce a mood of peace and warmth that glows as softly as their embers.

But lately, some of their owners have ascended the temperature scale from cosy to hot and bothered – and so have their neighbours.

With the sale of smoky wet wood and bags of house coal banned from 1 May, two government reports this week painted a damning picture of domestic wood burning’s contribution to small particle air pollution. They suggested that in 2019, closed and open fires were now responsible for 38% of pollution particles below 2.5 microns in size (PM2.5) – and, in a separate survey, found that just 8% of the population was responsible. Dry wood and solid fuels are much less polluting.

The research painted a picture of a group who were in some cases indifferent to the attached risks to small particle pollution, which is linked to a variety of serious heart and lung problems. Just a third of indoor burners expressed any concern about the health impact on them or their neighbours.

It found that 46% of those using indoor burners were doing so for reasons of “tradition” or “aesthetics”, the same proportion that were from the highest AB social grades. Just 24% said they were burning to save money, and 8% out of necessity. One devotee explained to the researchers: “People are drawn to water; people are drawn to fires … Beauty of nature, really.”

But while the burners are not always convinced there is a problem, a growing number have found themselves in disputes with others in their neighbourhoods – and, both sides suggest, the resulting atmosphere is decidedly chilly.

Robert Bishop, a company director from Billingshurst, is one of those whose frustrations at the growing number of puffing chimneys around him has led him to confront the issue, with a number of letters to the local paper.

“Sometimes, it feels as though I am back in London, growing up in the 50s, when the smog was frequently so thick you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face,” he wrote to the West Sussex County Times recently. “And if you think I’m exaggerating come round some evening.”

“They have proliferated around where we live recently,” he told the Guardian on Friday. “These reports underline what I’ve been saying: it’s unpleasant. You can’t open the window after, excuse the expression, you’ve been to the loo, because the house fills up with smoke instead.”

The problem has grown during lockdown, he said, with people at home more. “There’s not a house in the area without gas central heating,” he said. “It’s not necessary.”

Dr Gary Fuller of Imperial College London underlined that case when discussing the new research this week. “Wood burning in homes has crept up under the radar while we all focused our attention on diesel traffic,” he said.

“We can count cars and lorries on our roads to understand the pollution that comes from traffic. But we have very little idea of what people are doing in their own homes.”

Morley Sage, of industry body the Stove Industry Alliance, disputed the government research, claiming it presumes too low a proportion of wood burners are modern, eco-friendly models. He said the 38% figure “lumps wood burning stoves together with unregulated outdoor burning – bonfires, pizza ovens, firepits – all open combustion and very inefficient.”

There was no sign of sales dropping last year, Sage said. One factor is the so-called cottagecore phenomenon, a kind of Anglicised successor to hygge and now a staple of aspirational Instagram shoots.

Cottagecore “exploded during the first lockdown,” Rebecca Lovatt, owner of the website My English Country Cottage, told PA Media this week. “An Aga, a wood burner, blankets and cushions … These all sum up rural cottage living.”

One aficionado of that approach is Sarah, who owns a boutique in Norfolk. She asked to use a pseudonym to avoid further antagonising a neighbour who sees things slightly differently, and left her a voicemail accusing her of “an environmental crime” on the day of the report.

“He’s mentioned the ban more than once, but we do not burn wet wood and we never have,” she said. “Everyone in the area is fine with it except this one very disagreeable chap who thinks he knows everything.”

The controversy is also apparent on forums from Mumsnet to Nextdoor, which are all aflame with posts on both sides of the debate.

On the website Problem Neighbours, some wood burner owners felt persecuted by those who objected to their chosen heat source. “I don’t know about you, but in my day, we weren’t lily livered little grasses who took our neighbours to court for the crime of keeping warm,” a user going by the name of Fred wrote last year. “The way things are going, we’ll be having to ask permission to smile.”

Class is often a factor, too. “Wood burning stoves are really very antisocial,” said one Mumsnet user. “But they’re also middle class, so I expect everyone who wants one fitted will find some special reason why their pollution is superior and necessary.”

As if answering that call, a Daily Telegraph columnist responded to this week’s reports with a piece headlined “Call me a middle-class hypocrite if you want, but I’m not getting rid of my wood burning stove”. Sarah Rodrigues argued that her fire gave her “a feeling akin to that first warming sip of red wine”, and pointed out that she drives a hybrid and recently updated her Nespresso machine to one that allows better composting. She didn’t say what her neighbours think.