The Reed Harvest

Harvesting the reeds takes place every winter between December and April when the seasons growth has finished. Reed cutting can either be a one man job or can be done in organised teams. Which ever way the stages of the cutting are still the same.

Cutting the reeds

1Cutting

The reed cutter cuts the reeds slicing through the stems just above ground level. Traditionally reeds were cut with a hook or scythe, although now you are more likely to see cutters cutting with machines that look like large lawnmowers. The Olympia, purchased by the Association in 2005, is a converted rice cutting machine. With these machines reeds can be cut much faster than with a hook, but you may still find modern reed cutters using older cutting tools in more sensitive sites. One of the reed cutters at Cley still cuts exclusively with a hook.

Dressing the reeds

2Bundling And Dressing The Reed

The cutter picks up enough reed for a bundle, roughly twenty-four inches in circumference, originally measured as three hand spans. The bundle is raked to clear out the the old reed and plant debris and then loosely tied with twine. The rakes are generally home made using a wooded handle and a couple of long nails.

Knocking up the bundles

3Knocking Up

A loose bundle is taken and the base is repeatedly knocked onto a 'knocking up board', a three foot square flat piece of wood. This process lines up the base of the reads and helps to create a tight bundle ready for thatching.

stacking the bundles of reeds

4Stacking

The bundles are tightly stacked in a long reed stack and covered with tarpaulin ready to be taken away for thatch. Traditionally the stacks were left in the marshes to dry out, but as the sea defences are now more regularly over-run, the reed is usually taken away and stored elsewhere.

A reed cutter working on their own can harvest between 60 and 70 bundles of reed on a good clear day. The reed is then sold by the bundle.

The cutting season on the coast is much shorter than is it for the reed cutters based in the Norfolk Broads . The Broadland reed and sedge cutters spend the summer months cutting an additional crop of sedge. Sedge is the plant that is used for the dressing along the top of a thatched roofs. There are no commercial sedge beds along the North Norfolk coast so cutters have to find other work for the rest of the year. Reed cutters mix reed cutting with all kinds of other, self-employed professions like woodwork, agronomy and building reed fence panels.

Sedge (Cladium Mariscus)

Sedge cuttingSedge is normally harvested in the broads on a three to four year rotation. Cutting takes place in the summer months using the same small lightweight machines which are used to cut reed.

Generally, the sedge contains a proportion of dead matter (litter) which is removed prior to tying into bunches. The standard bunch is approximately 26”to 28” in circumference when tied green, however, each bunch will shrink as it dries. Sedge beds contain a variety of fen plants including reed, pin rush, lesser reed mace, parsley water dropwort, bog myrtle etc so customers have to expect some content of these plants in the tied bunches.

Cutting the sedge in the summer months suppresses any reed growth. Left uncut, sedge beds rapidly deteriorate with the accumulating litter restricting the variety of plants and resulting in sparse but thick, long stems of pure sedge. In time scrub ( sallow, birch, bog myrtle & alder) appear which in turn shade out the remaining sedge.

Unlike reed, the bunches of sedge are handled/ loaded using pitch forks. Care has to be taken with sedge owing to the razor sharp serrated edges. It is a remarkably tough but durable plant and used by thatchers for the ridging on roofs.

Managing the reed beds for bird life and biodiversity

The marshmen working on the reed beds have been a traditional sight in Norfolk for generations. Conservationists used to think that the annual harvest was not good for this delicate ecosystem, but in recent years it has been shown that a well managed reed bed supports more wildlife than one left in its natural state.

When harvesting, the reed cutters clear areas of the bed in rotation, leaving a patchwork effect. This creates different habitats of reed at different stages of growth. Some areas of the marsh are never cut for commercial reed and are left entirely to nature. Most of the beds are cut or burnt at least every five to seven years to maintain the marsh levels.

Throughout the UK areas of reed bed are in decline. The regular cutting helps to maintain the beds. Cutting the reed clears out the dead growth from previous years without disturbing the roots of the plant. When a reed bed is not cut the plant debris stays amongst the reeds. This eventually builds up to the point where the land is high and dry enough for trees such as willow and alder to get established. This changes the marsh into what is know in Norfolk as 'carr' woodland.