The Unexpected Wildlife Challenge Facing Dorset Thatchers

If you are thatching the roof of a cottage on Gold Hill – one of Britain’s most photographed views – you’ll attract more attention than most workers. Alfred caught up with Motcombe thatcher Ed Coney who answered the questions he has been most frequently asked during this job.

Jerome K Jerome said, ‘Work fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours,’ and throughout much of summer, Shaftesbury visitors posing for pictures or enjoying cream teas at The Salt Cellar have been trained on Ed Coney’s handy work. The quaint appearance of the thatch and the traditional skills of the thatching craft fascinates people. “It’s one of those trades that you can stand back when you’re done, look at it and, if you’re happy with it, you can say ‘good job’,” said Ed.

Ed Coney

And that’s precisely what many people walking up and down one of England’s most photographed hill have been doing – especially overseas visitors. “Typically, the Americans are amazed at why we’re putting something so organic on a roof. They don’t really understand it,” he said.

Having to shout responses to questions from the rooftop can become taxing. “It’s great that people have got an interest, but when you’re trying to get on with the job, and you get asked the same sort of questions, it can slow you up a little bit.”

Ed says there are some common queries and misunderstandings about thatching. “A lot of people don’t understand how thatch works and that it actually does shed water. It doesn’t soak it up and dry out like a sponge. It works in the same way as tiles,” he explained. “A lot of people think that thatch doesn’t last very long and that it’s quite expensive per square foot. It’s less expensive than slate, but obviously doesn’t last as long and needs a little bit more care and attention.”

Some people are worried about buying a thatched cottage because of concerns about fire, although better safety practices and reduced smoking means blazes occur less frequently than forty years ago. “There are a lot more precautions now. Wiring is safer. There are no greater occurrences of fires with thatch than there is with slate or tile. But when there is a fire in thatch, it tends to be quite devastating and it tends to get quite a lot of publicity, whereas a normal household fire probably wouldn’t,” said Ed.

Ed takes the passer-by interruptions in his stride. It’s not every day people get to quiz someone skilled in this rare craft. His greatest challenge with working on Gold Hill has been the incline. “It’s the steepness, the difficulty of getting up there and the amount of scaffolding we’ve had to have,” he said.

Ed wasn’t born into a thatching family. His father was a civil engineer. “Something just took my fancy about thatching and I trained with a local thatcher, who was very good and highly regarded. He was the ninth-generation thatcher. It’s nice to see it kept going.”

Ed is proud to have learned from a respected expert. “The real way you learn is to go on with the local master thatcher. He teaches you for five years. If you’re okay, then you get tested and then you pass out, as it were,” he said.

Ed can’t even estimate the number of roofs that he has thatched during his career so far. “I’ve lost count. Quite a few!” And although he travels all over the country, the majority of his work is close to home. “We’re primarily Dorset, locally and up to a 30-mile radius, but our next job is down in Poole. Then we’ve got one up in Surrey to do.”

Although Ed travels out of the county, he says his profession isn’t as short of skilled workers as people might think. “I wouldn’t have said there was a real shortage. There are obviously less thatchers than there are for most other trades, but there’s probably enough at the moment,” said Ed.

Perhaps one of the reasons Ed and his team don’t have to drive for miles is because our area is a thatched roof hotspot. “It is fairly equal with Wiltshire, Dorset and probably Devon. There’s quite a lot of thatch in Oxfordshire and some in Gloucestershire. Cornwall has a few and there are some in the home counties. We’re probably the centre,” said Ed.

Thatch isn’t all the same across the country. “The sharpness of the angles is greater up in Norfolk. In Dorset, Devon and Cornwall it’s more rounded. That’s just basically a cosmetic finish. The actual way that the thatch works is the same,” he said.

Ed can often recognise thatch from parts of the country from pictures alone. “Some thatchers will purposely make it look like it is from a different area. That has certainly happened more recently, but up to a point you can tell.”

One of the challenges that thatchers encounter comes from an unlikely source. Birds can remove the newly added roof material. “That seems to have been a fairly recent thing. We’ve had experience of it. In St James, another thatcher has had problems and it seems to be specifically jackdaws. We don’t know what’s causing it. It’s not because of any food that they’re trying to get. It’s not because they’re taking the material away for nesting. It’s more of a mischief thing. It is becoming a real problem. I know you could argue that it does create work for us, but it’s not what we want, because it’s particularly damaging,” said Ed.

It seems those birds are bright. “Jackdaws are probably the most intelligent corvid of all of them. They’ve got a mental age of a child of three years old and just as mischievous,” said Ed.

Jackdaws are a headache, but whatever happens with Brexit shouldn’t impact too heavily on thatching. Most supplies are sourced from within the UK. “Most of the straw we use is grown in this country – special strains – so that most of the energy goes into the length of the straw rather than the yield of corn. But the reed does come in from the Continent,” he said.

Unlike many of the building-related industries that have adopted new technology, thatching practices have remained mostly traditional. “It’s an old craft and there’s only one way to thatch. Some of the fixings have changed slightly when you fix into a new roof, but the principle is the same.”

You might notice small decorative thatched shapes, often animals, added to the roofline of thatched properties. “Some thatchers used to use them as a trademark, so you could tell who had done the job.” Ed doesn’t add those marks, unless specifically requested.

The Gold Hill Cottage thatching has been featuring in online snaps of the hill throughout summer. So how long does a thatched roof take to complete? “Depending on how many blokes you’ve got on it, probably two or three weeks, which is why we’re always busy. You only need one job every month and you’re busy for a year,” said Ed.

So it could be a long wait, if you need to book a job. “If you went on the bottom of the list, it would be probably in about a year’s time. A lot of that work is scheduled with customers who say, ‘Can you get me done this year or next year?’ We do a lot of work for the National Trust and Longleat. If they get a problem, we can normally jiggle things around and fit them in. Ordinarily, it is two or three months before I could do something, unless it was an emergency,” he said.

It’s heartening to hear that there is a source of work for this skilled craftsman and his team. It shows that this country tradition remains strong. “We always have work. The only thing that will slow us up is bad weather, wind and rain, and shortage of material,” said Ed. “The quality of the straw and the availability is in the lap of the gods really, weather-wise. This year, we’re hoping for a good harvest, but until we actually do it and thrash the straw out, we won’t know what we got.”

Ed can be contacted in Motcombe on (01747) 851444.