NORFOLK (WATER) (CONTINENTAL) REED
- Used to be known (incorrectly) as Phragmites
Reed has been used for thatching for many centuries, probably since man
first settled near wetlands, since the obvious roofing material is that
which is close at hand and forms a durable roof. It was not until the
development of the rail network in the early and middle nineteenth century,
which brought cheap Welsh slate across the country, that tiled roofs became
abundant. As this coincided with an increase in population, and so of
housing, the decline of thatch was slow. Thatching reached its ebb about
1935-60. It was then boosted by the introduction of short-stemmed cereals,
and combine harvesters, which decreased the amount of ‘wheat reed’ and
straw available for thatching. If thatched roofs were to continue as before
reed thatching had to extend into new areas (although the total thatch
in Britain is still predominantly from wheat straw)
Originally reed was cut with a scythe with a bow shaped attachment to
catch the cut stalks or even more labour intensive a sickle, and tied
with a sedge or willow band. Reed is extremely difficult to cut due to
its hard and fibrous nature As farm mechanisation came in a modified Alan
Scythe some with two or three extra wheels bolted on to improve buoyancy
increased cutting productivity by many times. Now even Rice harvesters
are employed, instead of cutting and cleaning through the bed the roughly
cut bundle is cleaned off the marsh. These methods and modernisation is
mirrored and even copied from the changes in cereal production.
British thatching might have almost disappeared, as it has done over
much of the continent, where "thatch" implies unacceptable poverty
this can be seen near the Danube. Fortunately, to the English mind, ‘thatch’
means "The Proper English Countryside" and so the rural (including
commuting) population wish to preserve, and even sometimes to increase
this form of roofing. Reed growing was thus saved by two factors, the
practical one of the decline in other thatching material, and the psychological
one of considering thatch desirable.
However, new markets means altering traditional ways, which in turn means
some difficulties. In Norfolk, thatched houses were built, as is best
for reed, with at least 50 deg pitch to the roofs. This requires some
alterations and adjustments by reed-thatchers, and also can lead to the
loss of the more "soft" rounded look of the straw, in favour
of the more usual sharp outline of the reed.
Another difficulty affected growers, cutters and dealers. Instead of
mainly supplying thatchers within East Anglia, working with county networks
of well-known requirements, (for e.g. a certain reed length) , reed was
wanted over a much larger area, and in climates and for roof types where
it had not previously been used, and for thatchers they had not supplied
before, and indeed had no traditions to guide them about preferred reed
types. The loss of quality long straw encouraged an increase of conversions
of straw thatch to reed. The way reed is marketed often makes it difficult,
or indeed impossible, to trace a reed grower, let alone a reed bed whose
reed does not meet the wishes of the thatcher. A thatcher requiring long
reed has every right to be upset when receiving short or medium instead,
but it is now difficult to put the matter right by having the same grower
send reed from a different bed. There have probably always been some complaints
about reed, as about any other crop, but while these were confined to
the local network, they were probably expected and rectifiable.
A third difficulty affected all three partners: growers, dealers and
thatchers. Although some disused East Anglian reed beds were brought back
into production, many others were not, for a variety of reasons, and few
new ones were developed. Consequently East Anglia, the major source of
supply, was unable to meet the new demand.
Continental countries with large reed marshes and little or no internal
demand (e.g. Hungary and Turkey) began a flourishing export trade. Obviously
if imports increased enough to harm those employed in East Anglia, this
would be detrimental, but if England is to preserve its thatched cottages,
some imported reed is desirable. Indeed It would probably be impossible
to supply the demand for reed from British reed beds.
Reeds, are wild plants with a crop that can be useful to man. A harvest
is available every year (although in some areas two years’ reed crops
are in fact cut together, "double wale", rather than "single
wale") This annual harvest is taken from plants which live for many
years. However, in reeds, it is the entire above-ground winter parts which
are harvested as a "dead" stalk while the long-living reed bed
is underground. As a rule of thumb the roots or rhizomes extend as far
underground as the visible parts This long-living part affects next years’
crop, but it is not seen. This unfortunately means that while sick apple
trees can be noticed, and will not be expected to bear good crops, it
is less easy to tell whether something is wrong with the reed bed.
All crops have good and bad years (like the bad 1982 strawberry season
in East Anglia), and reeds are no exception. The summers most likely to
give poor reeds are cool damp ones, but disasters can come with e.g. deep
floods or severe drying in local areas in May. Complaints about reeds
which are due to a single year’s weather deserve as much, but no more,
consideration than those for any other crop (i.e. normal patterns resume
the next year).
Although reeds have been, in some places, harvested and managed for centuries,
they remain, like crab-apples and unlike orchard apples, the same wild
strain, reed is a natural wild growth and not a crop in the true sense
of the word. Reeds are increased by proper management, but that is all.
Management can be very intensive, even with the regular cutting preventing
the invasion of woody plants and shading out the reeds. The natural cycle
of the plant means that a large amount of vegetable matter builds up over
the years. Reeds are cut after the frosts and wind have removed the leaves
as only the stalk is of interest to the thatcher. This debris can raise
the land level to the point that it is too dry to support good growth.
In natural conditions, reeds grow in water up to about 2 m deep, or in
wet marshy ground. With a suitable cut-and-burn management they can do
well on drier marshes which are only intermittently flooded. Now the burn
technique is frowned upon due to smoke pollution, possible destruction
of rare plants and disruption of wild life. If dry reed beds are abandoned,
however, other plants will invade, and scrub or wasteland will develop.
The East Anglian reed beds are marshes, some wetter, some drier.
Earlier, parishes containing wetland typically held some of this as common
land from which villagers could cut reed, and other useful items like
peat for fuel. These are effectively discontinued. Some farmers produced,
and still produce, reed for sale, though only a very little of the East
Anglian wetlands are used to grow reed. There are two main types of grower:
the farmer who chooses reed in preference to another crop, and the Nature
Reserve Manager who cuts for conservation, and aids further conservation
by the profits from the reed sales. It should be emphasised that wetland
habitats are seriously threatened and lost now, through drainage etc,
and commercial reed beds are one of the best ways of preserving wetlands.
If there was no crop, there would be no incentive not to drain, and conversion
to arable is all too likely (conversion to wet grassland is easier but
less profitable) . The reed growers are performing a vital national service,
since without them, this habitat is likely to disappear except in Nature
Reserves and these, necessarily, are very few.
In the main reed-growing areas, each area is subdivided into "beds"
by ditches. The ditches provided not only water level, drainage and irrigation,
but also allowed boats to remove cut reed from each bed for storage on
dry land. (Intersecting ditches are also found in wet grassland etc.,
but there they did not have to be large enough for boats). Beds may also
be divided by banks etc., where more recent management patterns enable
the bed to be intermittently flooded, and the crop to be removed by land.
Either way, there are different beds within each grower’s land. They may
differ in history (e.g. harvested from time immemorial, restored in 1972)
, in management (always cut, burnt and flooded in different months) ,
in "strain" of reed (reeds are all one plant species, but, like
blackberries, they vary in detail) , and in adjacent land use (near or
far from drained area, polluted water, arable, seepage springs etc.).
Reed from one bed can, therefore, differ to that of another within, as
well as between, each owner’s or cutter’s area. As already noted, it is
seldom possible to trace the exact bed from which a certain batch of reed
In addition to the reed growers, there are numerous cutters continuing
an ancient practice of cutting reeds from places outside the "farmed"
reed beds, e.g. centres and sides of ditches, patches at the edges of
various types of wetland. This means reed is taken from a wide range of
places and environments, and so the difficulty of tracing origins, and
the likelihood of including "bad" patches, however small, is
greater than in the reed beds.
A reed bed is typically two to four acres in size, and a grower often
holds between about three and ten beds. There are no accurate estimates
of the total East Anglian reed production, largely because of the freelance
cutters whose areas, unlike those of the growers, are not easy to count.
Guesses range from about 200,000 to about 300,000 bunches a year. Allowing
400 bunches to the acre, this suggests about 500-750 acres, or about 150-350
beds or equivalent strip etc. areas.
Reed has various uses:
Thatch. The only important use in Britain - and indeed, for exporting
countries. Only this use requires reed of specified quality (see below)
Minor farm uses, such as fences, bedding, thatching of sheds.
Reed board and paper. Both are manufactured on the continent. The quantity
of reed must be great, and be in easy range of the factory to keep transport
costs low. Unfortunately, this means the small and scattered reed beds
of East Anglia cannot be used for either purpose.
Energy. Reed beds have an unusually high productivity, and interest is
often expressed in using reeds for energy production. To the writer’s
knowledge, however, no pilot plant exists.
Most East Anglian wetland could potentially bear reed. If the profitability
were reversed, most of the drained arable land could be re-flooded and
used for reeds. Wet grassland is in fact less profitable than reed beds,
but the management and harvesting of reed beds is quite a different skill
to that of managing wet grassland, and this deters potential growers from
making the initial investment of creating new reed beds. (Also, no EEC
grants are available for reed).
Sir Peter Emery: To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries
and Food what assistance his Department gives to encourage the production
and harvesting of the reeds required for thatching roofs. 
14 Dec 1999 : Column: 182W
Ms Quin: This Department provides some payments under its agri-environment
schemes for the creation, restoration and management of reedbeds as a
habitat. This is not confined to reeds used for thatching. The Countryside
Stewardship Scheme, Avalon Marshes Special Project, however, specifically
targets the creation of reedbeds to be used for thatching.
MAFF, along with EU, The Broads Authority,
English Nature, Anglian water and the RSPB, are involved in funding a
research and development project aimed at establishing and demonstrating
new machinery and techniques for managing wetland reedbeds and fens. The
result of this work may provide techniques which benefit the production
of reeds for thatching.
The Rural Enterprise Scheme, part of the
package of measures under the Rural Development regulation announced by
the Minister on 7 December, will provide support for a range of rural
activities including renovation and development of villages and protection
and conservation of the rural heritage; and encouragement for tourism
and craft activities. The detailed operation of this scheme has yet to
be finalised but the support provided might include various aspects of
the production, harvesting and use of reeds.
Thatching, with its demand for high quality reed was, and is likely to
remain the chief use of East Anglian reed. High quality thatching reed
is straight and hard (hard when felt, and not brittle) , is in bunches
which are fairly uniform in length, and where the length and the average
thickness of each reed, fit the requirements of the individual thatcher.
It should also be durable as thatch. A roof with top-quality reed and
an expert thatcher will last up to 80 years in the east, and 50 years
in the wetter south-west.
Sporadic reports of early decay in thatch, from East Anglian reed but
outside East Anglia, have been occurring since the re-emergence of the
Although most East Anglian reed is considered acceptable, complaints
of "bad reed" have recently increased, thatchers have expressed
some dissatisfaction. There are three main complaints Reed bunches can
be cleaned (other plants removed) by either grower or thatcher, and a
thatcher intending to purchase cleaned reed is understandably annoyed
if he receives the reverse. The second complaint is that the reed is delivered
in a wet condition either from not being allowed to dry before purchase,
leaking in the stack before delivery even though as mentioned before the
stalk is dead it can still have sap remaining in it if dried out and or
left to mature this can be overcome by "stooking" in the open
but is a time consuming and difficult process in the worst months of the
year. The third complaint is that the reed is softer than it used to be
(and its bases are less shiny). Soft reed is more difficult to handle,
but it is not clear how far handling nuisance is related to early decay.
There is also a feeling, not checked by widespread measurements on roofs
of different dates, that the reed is shorter than it was 50-100 years
Experienced thatchers know the type of reed they consider durable, but
there are no objective tests for this.
Two obvious possibilities are that when disused reed beds were brought
back into production, no one could remember that those beds only produced
reed suitable for farm bedding etc. and, similarly, that newly created
beds are on land which formerly everyone knew was unsuitable for good
reed, and pollution is damaging some beds or strips, and the flow in the
ditches should be altered to keep polluted water from the beds.
The present difficulty therefore comes because a small local industry
has been trying to meet a country-wide demand without the sort of funding
and organisation which are available to other industries. Crafts do not
tend to attract money. Thatch is such a traditional part of our English
countryside, and reed beds are so valuable for conservation, quite apart
from the employment they produce, that it would be a great pity if either
were to be destroyed through mis-information or the difficulty of getting
There is one final point. This minor trouble may have come to the notice
of the national Press because of a misunderstanding.
In the Norfolk Broads and their connecting rivers there has been, with
increasing population pressure, a spectacular loss of the fringing reeds
which added so much pleasure to cruising on the Broads. This loss has
not led to any loss of thatching reed beds and is probably due to the
"pollution" of fertiliser being washed off the land and the
increased wash of pleasure craft. The reed beds which have been in production
over the past few decades are only rarely beside open waters, and are
then on "land" beside the water, rather than being within the
Broad. The Broads existence is mainly due to centuries of peat cutting
and is therefore man made.
Many holiday makers on the Norfolk broads see reed stacked by the waterside
and roadsides, these are left at a convenient transporting area after
being transported from the original growing area and wrongly assumed that
they have been cut from the sides of water courses.