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Harvesting raw material for the thatch that keeps Westcountry cottages snug

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: August 27, 2013

  • The 1940s Massey Harris binder owned by Les Coles, above and left David Hurford, who still threshes reed straw for use in the thatching business. Below, Combing the Devon Reed at Harcombe in East Devon – a major part of the harvest

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It’s harvest time and, as Dale Le Vack reports, it is not just cereals for food that are being safely gathered in, but building materials that stand the test of time.

The wheat reed harvest for thatching is being gathered during dry spells in East Devon this week.

Reed combing threshers are in action and among them, on land farmed by Les Coles at Harcombe, is an interesting 1944 machine belonging to 81-year-old retired farmer Mr David Hurford.

David Hurford is a well-known and respected figure in agricultural circles who owns the panoramic Farwood Barton Farm in Northleigh, near Colyton, East Devon,which his father Edgar Hurford farmed before him.

The Hurfords once grew large acreages of wheat reed in the past on their farm.

The thresher the family owns was manufactured by Marshall, Sons & Co, a company which was founded in 1848 and based in the Britannia Iron Works, at Gainsborough, in Lincolnshire. The company manufactured steam traction engines, agricultural machinery and even aircraft during the First World War.

David Hurford said: "The thresher was bought by Edgar Hurford in 1951 from agricultural contractor Les Symes of Dawlish. He'd had it new in 1944 as part of a wartime government agricultural scheme to increase UK grain production.

"I have owned it since 1968 and I kept it with a view to purchasing a comber to fit on to it. I was approached by Mr Dray of the Devon Thatchers' Federation when the Council for Small Rural Industries in Rural Areas (CoSIRA) were looking for someone to co-operate with them in making a comber.

"We completed the project in 1978 and held an open day at Farwood Barton to celebrate the occasion.

"There was a lot of thatching going on and CoSira were training youngsters – but the combers that produced the materials were wearing out due to age and neglect. New machines were required to ensure that thatchers could continue to follow their trade.

"The sling trusser was bought in a derelict condition and fitted with wheels after being extensively repaired. The comber is a copy of a design by Murch Bros of Umberleigh who last made one in the 1930s. This particular comber was made by CoSira technical officers Roger Ballard and John Barkham from plans drawn by Roger Ballard as a prototype to prove the drawings were functional."

Since then David Hurford has exhibited the machine – which he calls the "mumbling dustbox" – at many shows and rallies in the county. The comber separates the wheat from the reed – and the straw by-product provides bedding for cattle and horses.

Every year farmer Les Coles grows traditional Devon Reed combed wheat straw for thatching – and a hybrid (rye) variety called Triticale – on 30 acres of his land.

He also has a fondness for old machinery and he owns a 1940s Massey Harris binder with which he cuts the wheat in preparation for the sheaths to be cut into stooks.

The harvest this year is predicted to be average – last year was poor due to the weather – and prices for Devon Reed remain around six hundred pounds sterling a ton. Thatch is said to have become much more popular in this country over the past 30 years. There are reported to be about 60,000 thatched roofs in the United Kingdom and many more are being built every year.

It is estimated approximately 1,000 full-time thatchers are at work in the UK and there are more thatched roofs in this country than in any other European country. Thatch is becoming popular again because of the renewed interest in preserving historic buildings and the use of more sustainable building materials.

It is said a thatched roof will ensure that a building will be cool in summer and warm in winter. Thatch also has very good resistance to wind damage.

However, it is labour intensive and more expensive than slating or tiling. There has been a big increase in straw quality as specialist growers have returned to growing older, tall-stemmed, 'heritage' varieties of wheat. North Devon has several large units dedicated to wheat reed for ridge thatching.

Water reed is usually preferred for roofing in the 21st century as it is said to last longer – but it takes four to five acres of well-managed reed bed to produce sufficient reed to thatch an average house. Furthermore, regulations stipulate that listed buildings should be re-thatched using original wheat reed thatch.

Good thatching should not require frequent maintenance. In England a ridge will normally last eight to 14 years, and re-ridging will be required several times during the lifespan of a thatch roof. Insurance premiums are high because of the perception that thatched roofs are a fire hazard and a thatched roof is more expensive to replace than a standard tiled/slate roof.

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  • uppr1ckle  |  August 28 2013, 9:18PM

    I am somewhat puzzled by Dale Le Vack's statement in his article: 'He (Les Coles) also has a fondness for old machinery and he owns a 1940s Massey Harris binder with which he cuts the wheat in preparation for the sheaths to be cut into stooks. For 'sheaths' does he mean sheaves? (plural of sheaf) and a sheaf is not cut into a stook(shock), it is propped up with a number of other sheaves to create a stook.

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