In recent months it’s become increasingly difficult to source good quality thatching straw. The reason, according to the growers, was the weather conditions in the year leading up to the 2018 harvest. The resulting crop was high quality, but low yield.
Master thatchers are having to plan accordingly, perhaps by stockpiling materials or pushing larger wheat straw projects back, till after the 2019 harvest. Where straw would only be used for ridging, for example on water reed thatched roofs, it’s possible to source alternative materials, such as sedge, and eliminate straw entirely. I’ve also heard of a number of thatchers making the decision to continue with their water reed projects, only to cover the ridge area with a tarpaulin, with a view to wait till more straw becomes available, before they complete the ridge. In several cases, wheat straw thatched roofs have been stripped off and replaced entirely with water reed as a response to the straw supply issues, although this does require listed building consent where the building is listed.
In a modern economy where standardised goods are expected to be available on demand, every day of the year, its remarkable how fragile the thatching straw supply chain can be. A few weeks of bad weather can severely affect a crop. The situation is compounded by the fact that England is virtually alone in using straw for thatching roofs, so importing from abroad is not feasible. Thatching straw also has to be specifically grown for purpose, using suitable varieties of wheat. Whereas modern strains of wheat have short stems and heavy grain yields, suitable for combine harvesting, the ancient plant is different. With a longer stem, it is suitable for binding into bundles and to thatch.
As it is, the majority of the thatching straw produced is grown in the south west, predominantly Devon and Dorset, including locally around Wimborne.