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Reed cutters keep rural tradition alive on Norfolk Broads

PUBLISHED: 15:14 27 March 2019 | UPDATED: 15:55 27 March 2019

Reed cutter Lawrence Watts carries freshly cut bundles of reed on the Norfolk Broads near Ranworth. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

Reed cutter Lawrence Watts carries freshly cut bundles of reed on the Norfolk Broads near Ranworth. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

Picturesque reedbeds on the Norfolk Broads have formed part of the rural economy for centuries, and a handful of skilled workers are helping to keep the tradition alive.

Reed cutter Lawrence Watts carries freshly cut bundles of reed on the Norfolk Broads near Ranworth. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA WireReed cutter Lawrence Watts carries freshly cut bundles of reed on the Norfolk Broads near Ranworth. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

Reed cutting season started in early January and is currently at its peak, with professionals seeking to profit from a narrow window of opportunity that ends in late April.

One such professional, Paul Eldridge, was at work on a reedbed reached by boat near Ranworth, on Wednesday.

He estimates his team will collect between 12,000 and 14,000 bundles this year, which is enough to thatch eight cottages.

Reed cutter Lawrence Watts gathers freshly cut bundles of reed on the Norfolk Broads near Ranworth. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA WireReed cutter Lawrence Watts gathers freshly cut bundles of reed on the Norfolk Broads near Ranworth. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

He said there were no more than 50 reed cutters in the UK.

The 39-year-old, from Norwich, left his job as an industrial chemist in New Zealand more than a decade ago to return to his home county and work in conservation.

He said he trained on a Broads Authority reed cutting scheme, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, with friend Rowan Nichols, who was working as a landscape gardener at the time.

Reed cutter Lawrence Watts carries freshly cut bundles of reed on the Norfolk Broads near Ranworth. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA WireReed cutter Lawrence Watts carries freshly cut bundles of reed on the Norfolk Broads near Ranworth. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

“We liked it so much we carried on,” Mr Eldridge said.

They were joined by builder Lawrence Watts around seven years ago, and the three of them work on the land throughout the year.

After the reed cutting season finishes, they cut sedge used by thatchers for the cap of the roof, and in the winter months they do contract work for conservation charities such as clearing scrub.

Reed cutter Lawrence Watts gathers freshly cut bundles of reed on the Norfolk Broads near Ranworth. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA WireReed cutter Lawrence Watts gathers freshly cut bundles of reed on the Norfolk Broads near Ranworth. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

“You’ve got to love this job otherwise you wouldn’t do it, there’s no two ways about it,” Mr Eldridge said. “It’s never knowing what you’re going to see.

“If you like wildlife, we see all of the birds that birdwatchers kill to see, on a weekly basis.

“The other week I was walking through a little bit we’d cut through the reeds and I nearly walked into a bittern.

Reed cutter Lawrence Watts burns reed on the Norfolk Broads near Ranworth. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA WireReed cutter Lawrence Watts burns reed on the Norfolk Broads near Ranworth. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

“It was just having a little feed in the bed.”

He said that around 90pc of reed used in the UK was imported and while it was cheaper it “doesn’t seem to have the longevity on the roof that English does”.

“In some ways in theory Brexit could be good as it could push up the cost of imports, but it depends what happens with agricultural policy,” Mr Eldridge said.

Reed cutter Lawrence Watts carries freshly cut bundles of reed on the Norfolk Broads near Ranworth. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA WireReed cutter Lawrence Watts carries freshly cut bundles of reed on the Norfolk Broads near Ranworth. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

“As ever with everything there’s two sides to it.”

He said that currently he did not have to pay to work the reedbed as the landowner gets an environmental subsidy from the EU.

“If we were to have to start paying 30p or 40p per bundle for the privilege of cutting it, which is probably about what the difference in the subsidy is, it wouldn’t be economically viable, no way,” he said.

Reed cutters Rowan Nichols and Paul Eldridge cutting and cleaning reed on the Norfolk Broads near Ranworth. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA WireReed cutters Rowan Nichols and Paul Eldridge cutting and cleaning reed on the Norfolk Broads near Ranworth. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

“It’s marginal, let’s put it like this, you only do this job if you like doing it.

“You don’t do it for the fame, fortune and money that’s for sure.”

He said he knew of many people aged in their seventies who still cut reed, adding: “No-one retires when they cut reed, I don’t think, you kind of just keep going.”

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