Traditional Materials

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A Technological change in the farming industry significantly impacted the popularity of thatching. The availability of good quality thatching straw declined in England after the introduction of the combine harvester in the late 1930s and 1940s, and the release of short-stemmed wheat varieties. Increasing use of nitrogen fertiliser in the 1960s–70s also weakened straw and reduced its longevity. Since the 1980s, however, there has been a big increase in straw quality as specialist growers have returned to growing older, tall-stemmed, ‘heritage’ varieties of wheat such as Squareheads Master (1880), (1959), Rampton Rivet (1937), Victor (1910) and April Bearded (early 1800s)] in low input/organic conditions.

thatch-illustrationIn the EU it is illegal under the Plant Variety and Seeds Act 1964 (with many amendments) for an individual or organisation to give, trade or sell seed of an older variety of wheat (or any other agricultural crop) to a third party for growing purposes, subject to a significant fine.[9] Because of this legislation, thatchers in the UK can no longer obtain top quality thatching straw grown from traditional, tall-stemmed varieties of wheat.

All evidence indicates that water reed was rarely used for thatching outside of East Anglia. It has traditionally been a ‘one coat’ material applied in a similar way to how it is used in continental Europe. Weathered reed is usually stripped and replaced by a new layer. It takes 4–5 acres of well-managed reed bed to produce enough reed to thatch an average house, and large reed beds have been uncommon in most of England since the Anglo-Saxon period. Over 80% of the water reed used in the UK is now imported from Turkey, Eastern Europe, China and South Africa. Though water reed might last for 50 years or more on a steep roof in a dry climate, modern imported water reed on an average roof in England does not last any longer than good quality wheat straw. The lifespan of a thatched roof also depends on the skill of the thatcher, but other factors must be considered—such as climate, quality of materials, and roof pitch.