A huge expansion in thatching services has driven roofing costs down. The only problem is telling the difference between a craftsman and a cowboy
Just about everyone who lives in a thatched cottage will have been asked at some time what it's like to live under a wildlife park. How can you sleep with all those rats and mice running about? That's nothing, replies the owner, what you really have to watch out for are the spiders. Exaggeration and myth seem as much a part of thatch as the cottages themselves are part of the English countryside.

A roof in bad shape is likely to be alive with bats, mice and birds, but good maintenance and protective netting will make it vulnerable only to the tiniest and most inoffensive of creatures like the wren. Cottages can be damp and cold, but only if the roof is leaking and collapsing around the windows. And the cost of upkeep? The business of thatching has never been as competitive.

There is always a demand for thatched cottages. And the one thing the 50,000 owners of listed properties are not short of is advice. Conservation officers, thatchers, surveyors and restorers of ancient buildings are all there for the consulting. The biggest problem is whose advice to take.

Ten years ago, when Dr Juan Mason bought his 16th-century cottage in Chidham, West Sussex - once the village poorhouse - he was told by a thatching company that the roof needed replacing completely, and until then he could not be properly insured. Luckily, he met a thatcher who contradicted that opinion. And this week, a decade later, the job was finally started by Stephen Cleeve, one of the men who saved him from that unnecessary expense.

"If I had not come into contact with Stephen, I would have spent money that I could ill-afford at the time. He has been patching the roof ever since, and it is only in the last six to 12 months that it has really deteriorated," says Dr Mason. "And 10 years for a long straw roof is about 30 per cent of its expected life. It is a big expense anyway, about pounds 14,000 every 25 years."

The wear on Dr Mason's roof has been accelerating recently: "Our biggest problem has been the destruction by squirrels. It doesn't take much of a gap for them to get under the wire."

Dr Mason did not set out with a thatched cottage in mind, so how does he rate the first 10 years? "Thatch is cool in the summer, but ours is not especially warm in winter - although the new roof should make a difference. There is a certain anxiety about fires and bonfires. We chose the house because of its situation and its atmosphere. But of course it does look lovely."

Dr Mason's experience is not so unusual. The property boom years saw a huge expansion in thatching services. A rural craft industry was flooded with apprentices who now compete furiously for business. According to Paul Arthur, secretary of Kent, Surrey and Sussex Master Thatchers Association, during the Eighties people had roofs done when they really didn't need to.

"Our industry has indifferent craftsmen like any other and there is an unfortunate excess of tradesmen around, some of whom have had a training of less than a year." He believes the customer benefits if the man who looks at the roof is the one who does the thatch.

Stephen Cleeve, fifth generation of the family firm in Soberton Heath in Hampshire, would agree. He won the best thatched house in Britain award in 1992 and learnt his craft over five years. "You have to work on old buildings to understand how they were constructed," he says. "Nothing can replace that experience. But competition for work is enormous. I have lost a job for the sake of pounds 50." So has this competition been beneficial to the owners of thatched cottages? The answer seems to be a resounding yes, providing the work is of a high standard. The price of thatching has hardly changed in 10 years. Many of the drawbacks to thatched properties, such as high insurance premiums and a shortage of thatchers are things of the past.

Specialist insurance companies once had a monopoly but now offer more competitive premiums. Indeed, CGA Select has been involved in two years of research into the cause of fires in thatched houses, and intends to cut premiums for those following the advice of their findings.

A couple of years ago, a thatcher was quoted as saying that when it came to decisions about a roof the owner had the least say. The National Society of Thatched Property Owners, launched last week, intends to address that. But if owners should start to get too uppity, Stephen Cleeve will have the last word. As a variant on the tradition that thatchers leave a time capsule in a roof for the next thatcher to find, he might leave a note about difficult customers. "You never know, it may not be the first time," he adds.

Most of the thatched houses in Britain are in the West Country, East Anglia and around the South Downs, and each has a distinctive style. Since the 1950s long straw thatch has mostly been replaced by combed straw.

A local trade organisation should be the first port of call. A reputable thatcher will have a portfolio with pictures of his work and references. Go and see one of his roofs for yourself if you can. There are no paper qualifications as yet, although anyone who has trained recently with the Rural Development Commission will have done an intensive course combined with two years' work in a small rural thatching company and have taken a City and Guilds exam at the end.

National Council of Master Thatchers Associations: 07000 781909; National Society of Master Thatchers: 01494 443198; Thatching Information Service: 01920 438710; Independent Thatching Consultants: 01823 433567; S W Cleeve, master thatcher, 01329 834072.