Future's Golden for Traditional Skills of Reedbed Ecology

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), March 22, 2005 | Go to article overview

Future's Golden for Traditional Skills of Reedbed Ecology


Byline: By Vicky Moller Western Mail

In the 20th century, the needs of people and nature were often in conflict. It wasn't always so, and during this century a different trend could become apparent, as Vicky Moller reports

DRIVE over the Old Iron Bridge in Newport, Pembrokeshire, and on most clear days you will pass a row of backs. People motionless, watching the vibrant bird life on the estuary mud and reed banks. The birds and their watchers depend on a habitat which is kept healthy thanks to the efforts of one man and his friends.

He is not paid by any wildlife trust but he keeps reedbeds from filling in and changing. He is Alan Jones, a thatcher who harvests the reeds annually to turn them into warm roofs, at the same time maintaining the reed beds and the wetland birds which depend on them.

Within living memory many of the tidal estuary reedbeds were harvested to make weatherproof caps for outdoor haystacks, and barn and cottage roofs. Marsh harriers, reed buntings and bitterns were just some of the birds that benefited from the rich invertebrate population and the nesting cover.

Alan is reviving the tradition. He chooses his harvesting dates with care - in February to avoid nesting times, at very low tides and at weekends to suit the volunteers who are part of the social dimension of Alan's thatching. Harvesting is done with an Allen-scythe, a loved, well-made machine with two rows of teeth-filled blades like crocodile jaws which work like scissors. It is light and doesn't disappear into the mud (too often) and doesn't clog up.

The volunteers bundle and tie the reeds, cleaning off grasses, and stack them for carrying or boating to dry land before the tide returns.

Like many skilled people in Wales, too much of Alan's work is out of the country, in south-west England and even Holland.

He started as a self-taught thatcher more than 20 years ago and was taken under the wing of a master thatcher.

Thatching became a passion, not just a career.

The relationship between the thatcher and wildlife and global ecology is a good one. There are no net carbon dioxide emissions in a thatch roof, the material holds carbon for its many decades of life as a roof, and reduces losses of heat through its Herculean insulation properties.

It can be placed on a light wood structure made of local, green roundwood. …

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