Plans to revive reed cutting on the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads, Britain’s largest protected wetland

FOR centuries, reed cutters have symbolised a Broadland way of life, but in recent years they have become as threatened as the bittern.

Now the Broads Authority is planning to revive their numbers and increase the areas that are commercially harvested.

The Norfolk and Suffolk Broads is Britain’s largest protected wetland and third largest inland waterway, with the status of a national park.

Until the tide of sweeping change brought by the first world war, the famed marshman was a common sight throughout the Broads, carrying out commercial reedcutting as one of his duties.

However, a gradual decline in numbers over the decades accelerated in the closing years of the last century to the point where there were fewer than 20 reed cutters working on the Broads.

The legendary and much photographed reed cutter, Eric Edwards, long since retired from the Broads Authority but still working the marshes into his 70s, rues the fact that modern-day youngsters have no appetite for the rigours of hard winter toil.

Uncertain pay dependent on the harvest, a scarcity of marsh work outside the January to March cutting season and increasing competition from imported reed have all conspired to deter a new generation of reed cutters.

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While the formation of the Broads Reed and Sedgecutters Association (Brasca) in 2003 – promoting a fresh image of reed cutters using modern machinery rather than scythes – helped to stabilise numbers, the future of the industry has again been threatened in recent years by landowners taking sites out of commercial management.

However, the Broads Authority has announced a bold action plan to address the decline and significantly increase the area of Broads reed beds being commercially cut.

Andrea Kelly, the authority’s senior ecologist, said: “We know there are almost 2,000 hectares of open fen on the Broads and our aim is to see 25pc of that managed commercially.”

With less than 15pc of fens currently being commercially cut, achieving that target would require extending the cutting on certain reed beds and bringing other neglected ones back into production.

Working on a projected reed beds map of the Broads, she said that to preserve biodiversity it was important to surround fens being commercially cut by a “mosaic” of other habitats, including wet woodland areas and fens cut in the summer rather than winter for conservation purposes.

Ms Kelly said: “There will be benefits to people, protecting the opportunities for them to live and work on the Broads, and we will also facilitate new uses for reed crops, such as compost and bio-energy, to help manage the Broads.”

Underlining the importance of managing the landscape to preserve the fens’ rich biodiversity, she said: “We all know the government are expecting society to find other ways to pay for conservation management.

“This plan will help to put land management on a sustainable footing.”

She said landowners, who would still have a duty to manage protected sites even if they lost government conservation payments, had already been very positive about the initiative and were beginning to employ the local cutters to undertake all sorts of wetland work.

Aiming to start implementing the action plan as early as next winter, she said: “No other organisation is working with cutters in the same way.”

Part of the plan has already seen the provision of training for new reed cutters and addressing the issue of availability of work by providing them with scrub clearance contracts outside the cutting season.

Efforts would also be made to expand the market by looking for opportunities to sell lower-grade reed for thatching outbuildings. The first step has been the appointment of reed cutter Gary Elliott, 43, to carry out a survey of Broads reed beds.

Mr Elliott, who was brought up in Catfield and cuts reed at Barton Turf and Boardman’s Marsh, Catfield, will be contacting about 60 landowners and visiting sites all around the Broads to assess the quantity and quality of reed.

Priority areas will be the Ant and Bure valleys and one of the sites Mr Elliott will be inspecting is the Broads Authority-owned Buttle Marsh, near Ludham, to see if the site – created out of grazing marsh about 10 years ago – has potential for commercial cutting.

A reed cutter for 20 years, Mr Elliott said: “Until you get to the marsh and feel the quality of the reed in your hand, you don’t know.”

He said he would be checking the viability of sites for expansion, looking at issues such as access and how easy it would be to remove the reed.

On reed beds which had partly turned to scrub, he would be estimating how costly it would be to restore them to a commercial quality.

Highlighting his love for the job, deeply connected to a passion for wildlife – “at Barton Turf I have even had harrier chicks visiting my lunchbox” – Mr Elliott praised the action plan to preserve the area’s heritage and “keep people in the Broads”.

“We can see a future for living and working on the Broads now whereas before there did not appear to be any future,” he said.

While 75pc of reed is currently imported from places as far afield as China and Ukraine, he said there was a quality assurance in the case of reed cut locally.

He said: “There is a link between the cutter, thatcher and householder. Sometimes we might be supplying reed to a house in our village so we are not going to be giving them poor quality reed.”

Mr Elliott said the potential for expanding the business was shown by the fact that “everything we cut is sold before we cut it”.

His optimism is shared by Paul Eldridge, 31, and Rowan Nichols, 29, who represent the new breed of reed cutters having entered the industry five years ago on a Broads Authority training scheme funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Mr Eldridge, a former industrial chemist, and Mr Nichols, who used to work as a landscape gardener, cut reed together on the Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve at Hickling Broad.

Despite a frosty start to the day, Mr Eldridge, who lives with his partner Natalie Delidjani in Norwich, is completely sold on his new outdoors life despite annual earnings of only �17,000 – �5,000 for reed cutting and �12,000 for conservation work.

“Although Natalie, who is a teacher, thinks I am mental, I enjoy the outdoors life and being my own boss,” he said.

“I also love the wildlife – I spotted a bittern last week and saw the cranes earlier this week.”

As he and Mr Nichols have grown in experience they have doubled the pace of their work and “on a good day” cut up to 200 bundles of reed.

Praising the Broads Authority’s new action plan, Mr Eldridge said the appetite for local reed was clear.

“Every thatcher we have supplied was previously having to import reed and they are very excited to have English reed again,” he said. “They prefer it to the foreign stuff; one reported having to take three weeks to clean out a container load of imported reed.

“And their customers are also delighted to find out where the reed has come from locally.”

The pair, who also cut reed at Ranworth, St Olaves, Somerleyton and How Hill, agree that the co-operation of landowners – for example in controlling water levels – will be crucial for the expansion plans to work.

Brasca chairman Richard Starling, 60, who lives in Somerton and cuts reed at nearby Martham Broad, said he was “very positive” about the new initiative which he saw as a way of “reconnecting conservation with sustainable management again”.

He said: “At the moment, thatchers have little choice but to use imported reed owing to the limited availability of UK reed.

“Sadly, traditional and sustainable reed-bed management ceased on many sites in favour of longer-term rotational cutting and burning.

“Other issues impacting on production include access problems, changing water-level regimes, the widening of traditional dykes resulting in excessive areas of spoil and scrub encroachment.”

Mr Starling said the Broads Authority’s new initiative should be developed across the UK to create new employment opportunities.

“There are several thousand hectares of reed beds throughout the UK but I understand that it is only in the Broads where there is a desire to encourage further commercial participation in reed bed management,” he added.