16 August 2002

Thatch changes herald reed combers return

An agricultural machine that almost became redundant

along with steam power has lately found its way back

into our fields. Barrie Scott finds out more

CHANGES in regulations on thatchers reed have rekindled a market for particular old-fashionedvarieties of wheat straw. It needs, however, to be harvested and processed in the right way.

The reed comber was designed in the late 19th century for exactly this purpose. Built originally by the now extinct "mechanical carpenters", it was an attachment of the stationary thrashing box, originally powered by the steam traction engine.

Farrier and mechanical historian Chris Folly from Ryton, Glos, has conducted a hands-on study of traction engines and their agricultural attachments. His expertise, resulting from a fascination with that era of technology has found an interesting new significance due to this recent demand.

"The process keeps the straw straight without breaking its essential cellulose structure. There have been efforts to design something to work with the modern combine harvester, but it damages the straw too much. The specialised design of the original reed comber has yet to be superseded!"

Chris has rebuilt old thrashing boxes in the past, for historic exhibition value rather than as working equipment. With the addition of the reed-combing component, however, they now have a commercial value. His latest project is building them from scratch. It is, though, no mean task. The main structure of the machine is timber as are many of the moving parts.

He is using a set of more than 20 working drawings painstakingly prepared by COSIRA from an original machine built in Devon 100 years ago. COSIRAs interest was in developing viable crop diversification.

Chris experiments with a small plot of wheat straw and maintains that the best material is grown in small sheltered patches, planted and cropped a little at a time. Due to its length it is more susceptible to weather damage than other types of straw. Once broken it is no longer useful to the thatcher.

&#42 Thatching country

Thatchers are keen to deal with farmers with the skills for local production of quality materials. John Becklake, in South Moulton, Devon, grows 80ha (200 acres) of Maris Wigeon.

"Where wheat reed was originally used on a roof, it now has to be replaced with the same, rather than imported material," John informed me.

He produces suitable thatching material of 4-5ft in length. His thrashing box and reed comber runs from a long belt on a more modern adapted tractor. It is an exacting and labour intensive process. The wheat is cut and stacked in stooks, dried for 10-14 days then shifted over to the stationary comber for processing.

Chris Cooke, in Inkberrow, Worcs, favours Triticale, a robust wheat reed. Building on experiment and research, Chris intends to improve on the process, providing modern solutions for the needs of this ancient craft.