You’re exploring the countryside in Ireland when you discover a picturesque scene: a thatched cottage with white, stone walls and a green door. Such scenes are often associated with rural Britain and Ireland, and represent a tradition that dates back thousands of years.

449 Tatched Houses c Istock

Dry vegetation

Thatching is a traditional roofing method that involves the use of dry vegetation to create a roof. It dates back to the Bronze Age in Britain and Ireland, a time when people used local materials, primarily straw, to create roofs for their houses. For millennia, the majority of houses in this part of the world had thatched roofs. However, the use of thatch declined in the late 19th century, when the commercial production of slate began, and new modes of transportation made other materials more accessible.

Historic structures

Today, it is estimated that Britain has over sixty thousand thatched properties. The majority of them have been declared historic structures, and the highest concentration of them are in the southwest English county of Dorset. Ireland, however, has fewer than 1,500 thatched cottages remaining. Many of the thatched houses in these two countries date from the 1800s and 1900s; however, the oldest thatched house in England dates back to the 14th century.

449 Tatched Houses Istock

Potential problems

There are pros and cons to owning a house with a thatched roof. On one hand, thatched roofs are naturally weather-resistant and offer excellent insulation. However, they are vulnerable to fire and degradation from natural elements, including birds and rodents, and they have to be replaced around every twenty years, at a cost of thousands of euros. This makes them very expensive to insure and to maintain.

Changing demographics

As a consequence of this expense, the type of people who own thatched houses has changed drastically in recent years. Traditionally, poorer people owned thatched houses because they were affordable, and this is still the case in some countries, including Fiji, Dominica and Kenya. However, now richer people in Britain and Ireland are buying thatched houses or installing thatched roofs, because of their rustic appearance and ecologically-friendly material.