Roof caves in on Scottish thatching industry

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When Graham Craig hangs up his work clothes this weekend it will mark the end of a career spanning three decades and centuries of tradition.

As the owner and manager of the Tayreed company, Mr Craig harvests water reed from the tidal beds of the river Tay in eastern Scotland to supply thatchers throughout Britain, Ireland and America.

However, a large increase in competition from Eastern Europe is forcing him to abandon cultivating the 18th-century reed beds which stretch over 2,000 acres.

Over the past 24 years the Tay beds have become Britain's main source of thatching materials to an industry that, far from dying out, has undergone a renaissance in popularity.

In some southern counties of England one in four new-build houses in rural areas are thatch roofed - a demand for reeds which far outstrips supply. But Mr Craig has found it almost impossible to compete against cheaper imports.

In recent years, there has been a large rise in production in Poland, France, Turkey, Hungary and other east European countries which, combined with poor recent crop yields in Scotland, have forced Tayreed to close down its operations.

"I am very sad to be finishing up. It is the end of an era for Scotland," said Mr Craig. He has been running the company for 13 years and before that worked for 17 years for the operation's English-owned predecessors, Reedways.

"Competition from the continent has become too strong. They have the added advantages of cheaper labour and fuel prices half the cost of ours. We are still working to meet orders, around 99 per cent of our output is for thatching homes, but we have stopped harvesting because there just hasn't been good enough quality reed to last all year. We would end up having to burn the bad reed like last year and part of the year before, so it is just not viable."

The first reed beds were laid by landowners in the late 18th century to prevent the banks of the Tay eroding and to protect reclaimed land. Since then, the beds have become home to a wide array of rare and protected birds, including the bearded tit, marsh harriers, reed buntings and warblers, as well as a large variety of other wetland birds, making the area a site of Special Scientific Interest (SSI).

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Scotland leases 100 hectares of reed bed and officials are busy trying to devise a plan to save the thriving environment as the beds provide a better habitat for wildlife if regularly cut.

Three centuries ago reed beds covered large swaths of Britain but changes in agricultural practices, leading to better drainage and increased use of the land, have resulted in widespread landscape changes. With the demise of Tayreed, cutters in Norfolk will become the last in the UK to work reed beds. They cannot possibly fill the demand from thatchers given the current boom.

"It is a great pity that Tayreed has gone under because they have managed the reed bed so well. It is a very important ecosystem," said Bruce Anderson, RSPB Scotland's Tayside and Fife area manager. "We are doing our best to find a way of managing that site for the birds in the absence of Tayreed."