(last updated July 2019)
Thatching is an ancient craft and some aspects of it have barely changed in the last few hundred years. Nevertheless, change has affected the industry as straw farming techniques have been modernised and the sometimes conflicting requirements of both modern building standards and conservation legislation have been developed.
Although visually a typical thatched roof looks pretty much the same as it did in the past, beneath the surface a modern thatch may include a number of technologically advanced features. For example, 'thatch batt' insulation may be installed, along with a foil fire barrier underlay and a chemical fire retardant.
An important issue in recent years has been the somewhat controversial debate over 'like-for-like' renewal of existing thatches. During the 1960s and 1970s, many traditional long straw thatches were replaced by combed wheat. Recent years have seen some moves towards reinstating long straw, although water reed, much of which is imported from regions such as Eastern Europe, is now widely recognised as being the most durable natural thatching material available (note though that many factors affect thatch durability and not all thatchers would agree with this statement without qualification). Consent is required for a change of thatching material on a listed building, while many planning and conservation officers favour like for like renewal even where the building is not listed. In 2000 English Heritage (now Historic England) published Thatch and thatching: A guidance note in which like-for-like renewal is strongly advocated. You can download this publication from the Historic England website.
The late 2000s and early 2010s saw real problems for thatchers in many areas as poor harvests led to a shortage of approved materials, but planning and conservation officials often remained inflexible about using more readily available alternatives.
New synthetic materials have been developed to replace thatch with a visually pleasing but highly durable alternative where conservation is less of an issue. For example, plastic 'straw' shingles and tiles can be installed where regulations permit to provide an efficient, cost effective thatch effect roof. Products like Endureed are synthetic thatching straw replacements which have a very long installed life, require little or no maintenance, and can be installed by a non-specialist. Installing these types of product is often a considerably less skilled job than traditional thatching techniques.
The same mild winter weather and wet summer conditions that typically lead to poor harvests of traditional thatching materials can also cause problems for existing thatched roofs. Algae and moss are more likely to grow on thatch in these conditions, necessitating more frequent maintenance. Severe gales, which some predictions say will also become more frequent in the UK as the climate changes, pose another threat to the practicality of thatch.
The Second World War saw the widespread demise of thatching as a mainstream rural craft trade. The following five decades saw barely any new buildings being thatched, as builders turned to modern, more labour efficient and less skilled methods of roofing.
Although thatch still accounts for only a tiny proportion of all new build, the last ten years or so have seen a small upturn in the use of thatch (sometimes artificial). Dorset in particular has seen a number of new build projects using thatch. And despite the potential problems of ownership, thatched properties remain very popular with home buyers.
Health and safety
Increasingly stringent health and safety rules mean that thatchers have to take greater care than ever to protect themselves, their employees if they have any and anyone else at or near to the site where they are working. In practice, this often means using scaffolding where once a ladder would have done. While undeniably safer than ladders, using scaffolding on a job usually takes longer and costs much more.
The health and safety regulations which relate specifically to the construction industry as a whole were updated in 2015.
Building Regulations and energy efficiency
Recent years have seen Building Regulations include more and more rules about insulation and energy efficiency. Although there are special provisions for listed buildings and those in conservation areas, thatchers who undertake domestic re-roofing projects need to be aware of the need to work with local building inspectors to make sure that their work meets all the necessary requirements.
Compulsory energy performance certificates were introduced for house sellers in 2007. These give information about things like insulation. Listed and historic buildings - including thatched houses - aren't exempt, but they do get special treatment.
In the early 2010s the National Federation of Roofing Contractors launched the Competent Roofer scheme with government approval. Under the scheme, certified roofing contractors including thatchers can sign off aspects of their work for Building Regulations where necessary, saving time and streamlining operations. You can find out more on the Competent Roofer website.
After a number of years of economic prosperity, the late 2000s saw a sharp downturn which hit the whole of the construction industry hard. The economy remained very weak during the early 2010s. Although conservation rules favour the thatching industry, cash-strapped owners are more likely to make do and mend - or even postpone re-covering work altogether. Fortunately, things started to improve during 2013 as the economy began to pick up. The improvement continued during 2014 and, while the economy continued to grow in 2015, growth was disappointing at 2.2 per cent compared with 2.9 per cent in the 2014. The poor second half results which dragged down growth in 2015 continued into 2016 and the vote in June 2016 to leave the EU added a great deal of economic uncertainty. Low economic growth continued throughout 2017 and into 2018 due to the continuing uncertainty over the Brexit negotiations, higher inflation, weakening growth of real wages and the loss of consumer confidence in the economy. This is forecast to continue throughout 2018 and 2019. The fall in the value of the pound following the Brexit vote led to the cost of imports, including thatching materials such as water reed, becoming very much more expensive.
The thatching industry
It seems that the last couple of decades have seen an increase in the number of thatchers working in the UK as conservation issues have become more important and home owners have become more and more interested in preserving and maintaining thatch - and even occasionally building new thatched homes. The industry has seen the growth of thatching training schemes and even franchising schemes, as well as the arrival of sub-contractors from eastern Europe. Not everyone in the industry thinks this is a good thing - some feel that standards have slipped and that shoddy workmanship and 'cowboy' workers are on the rise. It has yet to be seen what effect the Brexit vote will have in the number of workers coming from the EU to work in Britain.
Keeping up with developments
A good way of keeping up to date with developments in your industry is to join a trade association. This is also an excellent means of demonstrating your professional integrity. Find out about your nearest regional master thatchers' association - most counties where thatched buildings are strongly represented have one. There is also a national association, the National Society of Master Thatchers (NSMT). Organisations like the Guild of Master Craftsmen keep their members up to date about relevant issues too.