The Trouble With Birds: Thatching 2


The thatching has been going well, with the weather on our side.

If anything it has been too hot over the last couple of weeks. Fine for the gardener who can head for the shadiest spot on the plot, but what do you do if you’re working on the top of a roof?



No shade up there..

The roof has all sorts of natural hollows, dips and bulges. But it’s likely that the area to the left of the left hand chimney was thatched at a different time to the rest. There is a distinct slope down to the left which shows up particularly on the chimney apron – that projecting section of new thatch directly below the chimney. It’s difficult to judge at roof level but when he came down to the garden to check his work the thatcher was straight on it.



The following day he made some adjustments, by building up the left edge of the apron. Perfect.



Thatchers have the same problem as I do working on a slope: keeping themselves plus all their tools and other materials up there in defiance of gravity.  I couldn’t help noticing this natty little device. Simply two bits of stout mesh hinged together, opening to give a 90 degree angle, one side pegged down to the roof. C’est voilà. An instant shelf. Mine would need to be a bit smaller, to fit into the narrower gaps between the plants. But the principle applies. I did mention it to Mike..

For Jennifer in Washington: I asked the thatcher about the seeds in the straw. It is threshed ahead of him using it, so only the empty husks now remain. Just as well really or we could be growing a fresh crop on the roof! But he does carefully cut off the seed heads in any case. It’s apparently more of a problem around September when the straw is greener (freshly cut) and any seeds which do remain could still be viable.



Halfway. The front side of the roof complete.

But what of those birds?



Around the far side of that end chimney the old straw has shrunk back from the cement coping, opening up a gap.

Yep, you’ve guessed it. A couple of weeks before the thatcher was due to arrive we noticed a coal tit repeatedly ducking into the hole, beak crammed with food. Picking our way out over the bank to just below the roof line the high pitched chirps of the young were much in evidence. What to do? The thatcher, and the scaffolding, had been booked for months. Stopping the project now would delay it yet more months. But in no way was I prepared to block up that hole with the chicks inside. And no way of moving them either. The thatcher was of the same mind. We would leave that part of the roof until the end of the project. And see what happened.

Our previous house was a thatch too. In Devon only the top part of the roof, the ridge, tends to be covered with chicken wire. Local thatchers take the view that wiring the whole roof, although it would protect it from bird and squirrel damage, would lead to faster deterioration because the wire traps in moisture. With abundant moisture being less of an issue in the more eastern parts of the country thatchers there tend to wire the whole roof. In that house we were renovating too. I’ve probably told the story before, but it was a much larger project. We had builders working continuously on it for 54 weeks. At one point they’d removed the bottom three feet from the wall along the entire side of the house, holding it up with acrow props. We could have done an Indiana Jones roll through the hole from the path outside to the sitting room inside. It was winter. Icicles hung from the disconnected radiator pipes. Birds flew from room to room. Amazing how time can blur the memory really and that I could ever contemplate doing it all over again!

In Spring that year a wren discovered that she could just squeeze through the chicken wire and hollowed out a nest deep in the thatch on the underside of the roof. And what a clever bit of thinking. A wren is probably the only bird small enough to do it and surely nothing else could reach her or her brood. For a couple of weeks, every day when we returned home from work, six little yellow beaks would poke out of the chicken wire by way of greeting, each one jostling to be the beak out in front. It didn’t take us long to find out why.. the builders had been feeding them bits of their lunchtime sandwiches!





2018-06-18T14:07:22+00:00June 18th, 2018|Tags: |


  1. Christina June 18, 2018 at 2:24 pm - Reply

    Exciting times. How long do you think the birds need to fledge?

    • Jessica June 20, 2018 at 9:05 pm - Reply

      16-19 days according to the British Trust for Ornithology. The great news is.. they fledged!

  2. Pauline June 18, 2018 at 2:41 pm - Reply

    Never a dull moment with you is there! If the parents were already feeding chicks before the thatcher arrived, I should think that by the time they have finished your ridge, the chicks will have flown, so all should be well.

    • Jessica June 20, 2018 at 9:08 pm - Reply

      They did fledge Pauline, I was so relieved! I was quietly confident because, as you say, we’d first heard them quite a few days before the thatching started and they sounded quite big and strong then. If they hadn’t gone the thatcher was going to come back later to finish that small section of roof, so they were never in any danger.

  3. Marianne Shakespeare June 18, 2018 at 4:02 pm - Reply

    The roof is looking good, your thatcher seems a good un. Will he put on a finial? A duck maybe…?

    • Jessica June 20, 2018 at 9:27 pm - Reply

      Hi Marianne!
      Funnily enough I was talking to him about this, last time he was here. Every thatcher has his own favoured ‘motif’ and for ours it is a duck! I was very tempted. What puts me off is the experience we had with the previous house, where I had a bird made for the roof. I can’t even remember which bird it was now but it may well have been a duck, given my fondness for them. One theory has it that the thatched bird acts as a deterrent against the real birds stealing bits of straw. Well it didn’t work for us, quite the reverse. The thatched bird was pecked to bits and looked shabby very quickly!

  4. Heyjude June 18, 2018 at 4:45 pm - Reply

    That does look like quite an undertaking, but your thatcher is doing a marvellous job.

    • Jessica June 20, 2018 at 9:27 pm - Reply

      He is. It’s looking very smart.

  5. derrickjknight June 18, 2018 at 4:45 pm - Reply

    Such a skill, well photographed

    • Jessica June 20, 2018 at 9:28 pm - Reply

      And much harder work than it looks! Thanks Derrick.

  6. Kris P June 18, 2018 at 6:51 pm - Reply

    You face complications that never would occur to me! Although, come to think of it, I’ve seen birds flying up onto our roof and the roof is on the prospective list for replacement as part of our remodeling project…Plans for said project are taking on dimensions that are causing my eyes to roll around in my head and we don’t even have final specs or a start date yet.

    • Jessica June 20, 2018 at 9:31 pm - Reply

      Kris you are very brave to take this on. Said from the heart..

  7. New Books & Welly Boots June 18, 2018 at 6:52 pm - Reply

    Fantastic photos, as ever, and I do like the wren story!

    • Jessica June 20, 2018 at 9:32 pm - Reply

      I was really sad when the wrens fledged. I looked forward to seeing them all the way home from work!

  8. Ali June 18, 2018 at 8:01 pm - Reply

    Gosh, it is fascinating! What an art! And amazing to constantly have to work with wildlife in your work like this.

    • Jessica June 20, 2018 at 9:33 pm - Reply

      The wildlife is becoming quite a challenge, especially the rabbits. They’ve started on the roses and it’s breaking my heart. Rose ‘Hot Chocolate’ from the last post? Every bloom and bud now gone.

  9. Charles June 18, 2018 at 10:24 pm - Reply

    The thatcher in Lustleigh had been evacuated in the war from the east end of London. He retained his cockney accent even though his offspring who worked with him spoke in broadest Devonshire. Funny how the dislocations from a world war rumble on through generations. I would not be here as my mother was born in France and was evacuated from Bordeaux when Vichy became too friendly with the Germans for my grandfathers taste, he had spent most of the first war fighting them. The family settled in Devon and my mother met my father, who was born in Dartmouth, when he returned from the Far East after the war was over.

    All that popped into my mind when you started talking about thatching, strange how my mind works. Marvellous pictures, makes our little bathroom projects seem insignificant.

    • Jessica June 20, 2018 at 9:48 pm - Reply

      What an interesting story. It’s such a small world isn’t it, when we think about it.
      When our bathroom project started out, as is the way with these things, it was insignificant. Move the bath through 90 degrees, relocate the loo. Buy a new vanity unit. Demolish a built in cupboard and in the space created put in a shower. Somehow it has transformed from that into channelling a massive hole in the dining room wall below, digging up its floor and driving an even bigger hole though the external wall. I wish truly I’d never started it.

  10. Susan Garrett June 18, 2018 at 11:28 pm - Reply

    I hope the coaltits fledge in good time for you to get the job finished. I don’t think sandwiches are the most suitable food for young wrens.

    • Jessica June 20, 2018 at 9:49 pm - Reply

      No, not the best diet at all. I was worried they might grow so fat they wouldn’t be able to get out through the chicken wire. Thankfully all was well.

  11. janesmudgeegarden June 19, 2018 at 12:18 am - Reply

    So interesting to follow the progress of the thatching and the front of the roof looks immaculate. It must be very pleasing to have such a natural roof rather than the hard iron roofs we have here, although they have their upside when it rains. The sound of raindrops on the roof is very pleasing too- although not frequent enough for our liking!

    • Jessica June 20, 2018 at 9:54 pm - Reply

      I remember the sound of rain on the iron roofs. I’ve always had a fondness for thatch although it too has its drawbacks. There are no gutters so in the rain the water just rolls off the roof and, if you need to pass underneath, straight down the back of your neck!

  12. Virginia June 19, 2018 at 3:39 am - Reply

    The account of your deprivations during the restoration of the previous cottage sent me for a hot drink, hot water bottle, and HIGH on the central heating! How did you survive?

    • Jessica June 20, 2018 at 10:00 pm - Reply

      Ahhh… it must be winter in NZ!
      The house had a modern extension so we moved all the furniture (a bit of a squeeze) into it and camped out in there whilst the old part was being renovated. I remember, just before the end of the project, they took down the plywood partition between the two halves for one weekend and we could freely walk between one and the other. The following Monday the partition returned. It felt like being in a prison again!

  13. LindA p June 19, 2018 at 8:04 am - Reply

    The thatcher is doing a great job using his specialist knowledge to make it look good as well as sorting out individual quirks as he goes along. I like the criss cross decoration. It all looks very neat and tidy. Thank you for the update and photos on progress.

    • Jessica June 20, 2018 at 10:03 pm - Reply

      I love the look of a newly thatched roof. I only wish it lasted longer.. it’s been wetter down here this week and already the new straw is losing some of its freshness.

  14. Penny Post June 19, 2018 at 9:58 am - Reply

    Thatched roofs do look so nice.

    • Jessica June 20, 2018 at 10:05 pm - Reply

      They do. Plus cool in summer and warm in winter. Well, that’s the theory. It still feels cold in winter to me but I suspect that is just me!

  15. Jayne Hill June 19, 2018 at 5:36 pm - Reply

    You did make me chuckle, clearly you are skilled in employing builders who are as daft as the rest of us! Feeding bits of sandwich to a nest of hungry wrens? Well, of course, who wouldn’t 🙂

    • Jessica June 20, 2018 at 10:07 pm - Reply

      The baby wrens were very cute. I’m not sure builders’ sandwiches was the best diet ever but very difficult to resist those gaping beaks.

  16. Mary June 20, 2018 at 11:44 am - Reply

    I am in awe of the skilled thatcher (not the political one). What an beautiful job; such an amazing talent. Hope the plan for the coaltits works out.

    It sounds like buying a second thatched cottage is a lot like giving birth: you forget all the pain of labour and find yourself doing it again.

    • Jessica June 20, 2018 at 10:17 pm - Reply

      Any old house over here can be a heavy commitment. Nothing is ever simple and, as we are discovering with the bathroom, there is no blueprint to follow. Each project is totally unique and much is unknown until the floorboards come up or the wall comes down. It means contractors build in a lot of contingency. But even then you really don’t know what you’re in for until the project actually starts.

  17. snowbird June 20, 2018 at 7:09 pm - Reply

    It really is fascinating seeing the thatching process. I do hope the chicks fledge, I was smiling re the wrens being fed bits of sandwiches. I did enjoy this

    • Jessica June 20, 2018 at 10:19 pm - Reply

      Thanks. The chicks fledged! I was so relieved. Didn’t actually see them go, but suddenly there were no signs of them and it all went very quiet.

  18. woolythymes June 24, 2018 at 2:40 pm - Reply

    Let’s just hope mamma bird didn’t decide that this will be her forever home and start working on a new brood!!! How lucky they were that you saw them! Have you any idea how many people never even notice what birds visit their world?!?

    • Jessica June 24, 2018 at 7:56 pm - Reply

      I can believe it Steph and it’s very sad. How much nature adds to our lives if we only stop and look for it. Apart from bunnies that is. And slugs. And voles…

  19. germac4 June 24, 2018 at 11:32 pm - Reply

    Your cottage is looking magnificent! The thatching really is superb! My cousin once owned a big thatched roof hotel… In Africa and he employed many thatchers every year for repair work… The baboons liked to slide down the thatch for fun taking handfuls of straw with them …. So birds look easy in comparison!

    • Jessica June 25, 2018 at 5:11 pm - Reply

      Oh my goodness.. suddenly I’m grateful for the birds!

  20. offtheedgegardening June 25, 2018 at 10:30 pm - Reply

    Looks wonderful!

    • Jessica June 26, 2018 at 11:13 pm - Reply

      It’ll keep the rain off our heads a tad longer.

  21. Peter Herpst June 28, 2018 at 4:01 am - Reply

    The fun just never ends at your place! Glad to hear that the chicks fledged just in time.

    • Jessica June 28, 2018 at 9:32 am - Reply

      This project was a fun one. But as we prepare for the next major upheaval things are about to become very un-fun indeed!

  22. karen July 3, 2018 at 5:24 pm - Reply

    I can’t stop gazing at that roof. It is just so beautiful; the shape, the colour, the bird life it contained. Magical! When I travelled abroad, I think It was in China, I watched some villagers thatching their homes using bamboo scaffolding put up in a most higgledy piggledy manner. Little children were helping and were climbing up and down as quick as anything. Thanks for sharing your story Jessica. All the best with the renovation work.

    • Jessica July 3, 2018 at 11:14 pm - Reply

      Thanks Karen. I’d like to have seen that. I’ve seen huts thatched with palm leaves which is obviously a far more ‘normal’ thing to do in some countries. The metal ladders here moved around quite enough for me, I’d probably have left the bamboo to the children!

  23. Carrie July 8, 2018 at 1:24 pm - Reply

    Okay, I’m totally new here to your blog and that photograph of your whole house and terraced garden literally gave me shivers! Wow, it is stunning. Sounds like you have a great thatcher, (not that I know any) but caring for the birds is so important, I appreciate you both respecting your visitors 🙂
    I spent a couple of days in a grade 2 listed thatched cottage here in N.Ireland last week, boy it was a heatwave but that roof and the plain whitewashed walls made the place so cool inside. It’s our dream to have a modern cottage like yours (only smaller) and not thatched as there are so few skilled people left here in the East of the country. I’m rambling now…. hugs

    • Jessica July 8, 2018 at 8:40 pm - Reply

      It is cool inside and that is one of the main plus points of a thick walled thatched cottage, especially this summer.
      We do our best to respect the wildlife, even though not all of it is as welcome as the birds! There was a brief and fruitless attempt at reducing the mouse population but there are too many of them and they breed too fast. Now it’s a case of live and let live. And not planting any bulbs..

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