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Page last updated at 16:11 GMT, Wednesday, 30 September 2009 17:11 UK
Rural skill worth sticking with

By Laura Joint
BBC Devon

Thatching spars
Thatching spars are hand-made from hazel - this roof in Devon has been done by Adam Hyne

When you picture the quintessential Devon scene, you imagine a village green, picturesque church, and a cluster of pretty thatched cottages.

Devon is synonymous with thatching, but you won't find much locally produced material on the county's thatched roofs these days.

For centuries up until WWII, Devon craftsmen would use materials from local coppice woodlands to make the hazel thatching spars which secure the thatch on the roof.

Following the war, however, coppicing all-but died out - not just in Devon, but across England. Now, there are precious few coppice woodlands left from which the thatching materials can be made.

Thatched cottage in Lustleigh
Lustleigh is a typical thatched village in Devon. Photo: Ronnie Bullock.

Yet the thatching trade in Devon is thriving, with dozens of thatchers scattered around the county. Between them, they are spending an estimated £150,000 a year on imported thatching spars - mainly from Eastern Europe.

A new initiative aims to reverse the trend by reintroducing traditional coppicing in Devon's hazel woodlands and by planting new coppice woodlands.

Coppicing is a method of woodland management where young trees are repeatedly cut down to nearly ground level on a rotation basis, allowing new shoots to emerge for harvesting.

The Devon Sustainable Coppice Partnership has been set up by woodland conservation expert Dr Tean Mitchell and master thatcher Adam Hyne, from Moretonhampstead.

They have already received funding from the Dartmoor National Park's sustainable development fund, and a series of 'taster' days are being held at the park's Sanduck Wood in October and November 2009.

Tean admits it will take a long time to create the conditions which will supply the county's thatchers with local materials, but the benefits will be reaped for years to come.

It's hoped coppicing can make a return

"It's nearly two years since Adam told me about this travesty of being forced to import thatching spars from Poland and I thought I really wanted to do something about it.

"And now we've been able to launch as a community interest, rather than a charity, which means we can trade and become self-sufficient so we won't be dependant on funding.

"That's what we are aiming for, and this is seriously viable. But we know it's a long term project to get the woods into rotation.

"The response we have had has been fantastic. People are biting our hands off to get involved. Everyone sees there is a need for this.

"The thing is that at the moment, we have the skills but not the materials."

As well as the Dartmoor initiative, Tean and Adam also have potential projects in the South Hams and Teignbridge.

Adam Hyne
Adam Hyne says local thatchers would love be able to use local materials

Adam says local thatchers would love to use local materials: "Thatching in Devon is vibrant and we don't want to use imported spars. They are made from hazel, which grows in abundance here but the coppices have been neglected.

"There'd be 5,000 to 6,000 spars in each roof and they all have to be made by hand - there are no machines which can make them.

"In Devon, there is enough for five full time workers to be coppicing - just for making spars. Instead, we are spending all this money on spars from eastern Europe."

The benefits of coppicing also extend to wildlife. "It's great for biodiversity," said Tean. "Birds, butterflies and small mammals all love the edge of woodlands."

Tean and Adam are working with trainers, professionals and volunteers to deliver training days. The Dartmoor workshops at Sanduck Wood are on 18 and 25 October, and 22 and 29 November from 10am to 4pm.

To sign up for one of the days or for information on events and training, ring Dr Tean Mitchell at Devon Sustainable Coppice Partnership on 0845 458 1732. Or email to tean@sustainablecoppice.org

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