Euro rules threaten Britain’s thatched-roof landscape
They are quintessentially English; the picture that adorns a million chocolate boxes. But the quaint tradition of thatched roofs on country cottages is under threat from the European Commission. There are 50,000 thatched cottages in England and more in Wales and Scotland, many of which have survived centuries of exposure to the elements thanks to their long-straw wheat roofs…Attempts to save Britain’s traditional thatched roofs are being thwarted because European rules ban farmers from buying or even being given the old long-straw organic wheat seeds they need to start growing traditional thatching straw. Some fear the old roofs could soon be all but lost, as they have been in mainland Europe. ‘I’m quite pessimistic,’ said Jack Lewis, a recently retired thatcher. ‘It’s a steady drip, drip, and after a while it might tip over.’…Originally, all thatching in Western Europe was done with straw except pockets in areas where water reed grew, such as Norfolk. Up until 100 years ago, dozens of varieties of wheat were grown ‘to meet this demand. Now there are just two varieties approved by the European Commission and British government which are close to long enough for thatching – and even they are ‘second best’, said Lewis. The list dwindled because not enough was done to keep farmers growing longer varieties for thatching, so there was not sufficient demand; but some critics claim seed companies now have a vested interest in preventing them being relisted because they would not profit from royalties for such ancient strains.
(The Observer, 31 October 2004, page 7)
The article “Euro rules threaten…” recalls that up until 100 years ago dozens of varieties of wheat were grown to meet this (traditional thatching straw) demand, and suggests that the current shortage of such material is due to the Community legislation, in particular that relating to the marketing of seeds of wheat, including implicitly the Council Directive 2002/53/EC of 13 June 2002 (the former 70/457/EEC of 29 September 1970) on the Common catalogue of varieties of agricultural plant species.
That is not so. The author of the article remains silent on the fact that the concerned catalogue of varieties is based on the applications of plant breeders. If plant breeders have no interest in these kind of varieties the Council Directive 2002/53/EC cannot be blamed.
Should the criticism concern the fact that the Directive has not taken into account the conservation of old landraces, one should carefully consider that such an assumption is also wrong (see Article 20(2) and (3) of the said Directive). Discussions are taking place in Brussels that would enable ‘old’ thatching varieties to be kept on the Common catalogue with the minimum of bureaucracy in the interests of preserving landrace varieties.