Wheat Straw Thatching

Most thatchers will know of the more commonly used wheat varieties grown such as Maris Huntsman (introduced 1972); Maris Widgeon (introduced 1963) and Aquilla (introduced 1976). Many will not be aware that these varieties are recent arrivals and were bred as shorter crops to suit modern farming rather than for use in thatching.

None of these varieties grow particularly tall under low fertility (nitrogen) and need high inputs to gain any length in the stem, they are a favourite with commercial thatching straw growers mainly because of their relatively higher grain yield than can be achieved compared with old wheat varieties and can with care and attention to the growing regime produce fairly consistent yields of thatching straw for combed wheat reed or long straw.

What do thatchers want?

Many thatchers have only used these varieties because that is all that has been available to them so they try to thatch accordingly with shorter straw than their thatching ancestors pre 1950’s would have used.

These semi modern varieties are fine for spar coating long straw up to say a 300 mm thick specification but it does mean more yealms and fixings to cover the same area of roof compared with for example Squareheads Master/ Red Standard from the 19th century which would average 30 to 40 cm longer straw. For new work fixed to rafters @ 400mm thatchers would be wise to use the older taller varieties.

For spar coating combed wheat reed at any reasonable thickness one would be best advised to avoid Aquila as it has the shortest average length of them all @ 75cm grown under low fertility husbandry, because of pan back and poor pitch to both the thatch and the roof rafters especially in the west country regions. Use of these semi-modern varieties for combed wheat reed in the western half of the UK has been problematic and may explain why both growers and thatchers have in recent decades opted for Triticale (half wheat/ half rye) which is taller and more disease resistant growing in the field. N59 introduced in the 1950’s is still a firm favourite in parts of the West Country, this is a semi-solid straw that lends itself well for use in combed wheat reed thatching.