WATCH: New generation of reed cutters are preserving the traditional skills of the Broads
Jamie Honeywood Archant Norwich Norfolk
A new generation of reed cutters is being trained with the traditional skills which have shaped the delicate ecosystems of the Broads for centuries - and there is a growing demand for their product. CHRIS HILL reports.
The unmistakable Broads landscape of rustling reeds and meandering waterways is a haven for nature – but despite its wild appearance, it relies on careful management.
And without the activities of reed and sedge cutters it would revert to scrub, depriving rare species of their precious habitats.
So to prevent these valuable heritage skills being lost, a new generation is being trained to harvest a crop which can help preserve this unique environment while meeting a growing demand from traditional thatchers.
The Broads Reed and Sedge Cutters Association (Brasca) is nearing the end of a three-year project, funded with a £24,558 grant from The Prince’s Countryside Fund, to help younger reed cutters take courses including chainsaw use, first aid, trailer licencing and herbicide treatments.
And the project culminated in the publication of a training and instruction booklet offering guidance on harvesting techniques, the restoration of old reed beds, and how to maintaining optimum water levels to promote good reed growth.
The guide was launched with a demonstration of skills and machinery by some of Brasca’s 20 self-employed reed cutters at Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Martham Broad National Nature Reserve, home to nesting cranes and bitterns.
Richard Starling of Brasca said: “We are all getting older, so we know things need to change. We’ve got to get youngsters in and we’ve got to reconnect commercial cutting – the traditional sustainable management – with the people who own these reed beds.
“It is not an easy life, but it is a wonderful place to work. You are out on your own for a lot of the time, but it is very rewarding and very satisfying.
“You’ve got the wildlife all around you, and you produce a quality product which is very much in demand.”
Among the young people trained by the project is 22-year-old Isaac Lester, from North Walsham, who has now been cutting reeds for 18 months.
While he agreed it was important to pass traditional skills onto the next generation, he said there were several other factors which drove his career choice.
“That’s part of it, but I like physical work and I like being outside with nature and also I’m interested in running my own business enterprise,” he said.
“If you can mix all these things together it makes it really enjoyable. In the future maybe I could have a group of people cutting reed with me. I’m just starting out fresh at the moment, but I’m really enjoying it, so I want more of the same.”
Brasca chairman Paul Eldridge said: “If we don’t have young people coming in, this industry is going to die out.
“I am one of the younger members of Brasca and I am pushing 40, so without people like Isaac coming through there won’t be anyone to work the marshes. And if there is no-one to work these marshes, they quickly turn into woodland – and then they are no good for all the species which the Broads are famous for.”
Another guest at the launch event was Andrew Raffle, director and secretary of the National Society of Master Thatchers, who has been making roofing from reeds since 1975.
“Thatching is an ancient craft and recently they found evidence that water reed thatching was used in the Bronze Age at Flag Fen near Peterborough,” he said. “Little has changed since then in the way we do it, and there is still a big demand for the reeds.
“There is a future for thatching, as long as we can get the materials. It is up to the people here on the marshes who are the custodians of the Broads. There is reed here to be cut, and reed beds to bring back to life.
“I think it is fantastic that the skills of the reed cutters are being recognised and this training programme will ensure a future for them and the Broads.”
Kevin Hart, head of nature reserves for Norfolk Wildlife Trust, said reed and sedge cutters provided an invaluable service for the Broads’ ecology.
“With most wildlife habitats you are looking for a mosaic of different heights, ages and management techniques, because different species have different needs,” he said. “If we don’t have these activities, how would we achieve that.
“Our staff can do some cuts, but it stretches our resources so to have a vibrant industry of sedge and reed cutters is preserving fenland habitat that we would really struggle to be able to achieve ourselves with the grant money available for land like this.
“We massively value the support of the reed and sedge cutting industry. If they disappear and we don’t have a younger generation of these cutters coming through it would threaten the viability of these habitats.”
Brasca chairman Paul Eldridge cuts reed and sedge at wetland sites including Hickling and Ranworth – and he said demand is growing rapidly for high-quality Norfolk reed.
“Last year I supplied several thatchers for the first time, and they said they have not had reed this good in 27 years of thatching,” he said.
“I started supplying a big concern up north and he wants 30,000 bundles of Norfolk reed a year. He cannot get enough of it.”
The UK thatching industry uses an estimated 5m bundles of reed a year, but 80-90pc of that is imported – which Mr Eldridge believes could present opportunities for home-grown suppliers.
“Quite a lot of the reed is imported from the EU and I think with all the discussion about agricultural policy post-Brexit there is an opportunity to promote sustainable management of reed beds,” he said. “There is already a lot of management of reed beds, but people get paid to cut it and burn it. Why not support a local industry and pay cutters to go and cut that reed?”