A THATCHED cottage evokes a picturesque image of rural England and helps us delve into the lives of our ancestors who lived more simple lives in the Wiltshire countryside.

The meticulous beautifully crafted thatched roofs of master thatcher Clive Brooks are an increasingly common site in villages and towns across the county.

Twenty years ago Mr Brooks, now 48, left the army and set up his own thatching business. He had a good grounding in the craft having spent many summers learning the trade with a master thatcher during his school holidays.

To the uninitiated, thatching appears to be a gentle, romantic trade with few worries transferred from the modern world.

While Mr Brooks is busy all year round, passionate about his work and committed to quality, he reveals that the industry is in the midst of a small crisis, which is down to the force of nature and the bureaucracy of local administrations.

Intense and widespread flooding across the country last year devastated much of the crops that farmers grow specifically to sell to thatchers.

Mr Brooks, from Cherhill, near Calne, said: "Thatchers are an environmentally sustainable bunch. They like to use locally grown straw to thatch roofs with.

"Unfortunately, last year during the high profile floods, acres and acres of fields were left under water and the seeds rotted.

"Consequently there is a shortage of straw, in particular the combed wheat reed that is used in most of the roofs in this area.

"The price has gone up as supply is not meeting demand and farmers are holding on to what they do have to try and get the best price for it.

"In 2007 it was £650 a tonne and I recently paid £800 a tonne but I have seen stocks at more than £1,200 a tonne - almost double last year's prices."

The cost is not the only problem thatchers like Mr Brooks are facing. Planning law dictates that thatch roofs must be restored using the same style of straw. To change the type planning permission must be obtained from the local authority.

Mr Brooks said: "There are alternatives to the devastated combed wheat reed crop. Water reed from Europe is more coarse but lasts longer than the traditional reed. But the councils won't have it. The officers insist on like for like to preserve the character of the listed building, but it's making it very difficult. Thatched roofs are a temporary structure anyway when you think about it."

Despite the rumbles in the industry Mr Brooks and other thatchers in Wiltshire are busier than ever. Having just completed a cottage with a vast expanse of thatch and decorative ridges on the borders of the county in Chilton Foliat, Mr Brooks was immediately commissioned to replace the thatch next door.

In another part of the county, at their beautiful cottage in Box, overlooking the famous Box Tunnel built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Jacky and Tony Ceeney proudly show off their thatched roof, recently completed by Brooks.

Mrs Ceeney said: "We did a bit of research and picked Clive. They did exactly what we wanted and produced a really voluptuous roof. It's a big upheaval having your roof off but Clive and his team were considerate and highly professional."

Film location scouts seem to agree as Mr Brooks has been commissioned by the BBC to produce thatching on set for period dramas Larkrise to Candleford and the forthcoming series of Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

Even if a cottage has a tiled roof it can still be replaced with thatch and is seen by many as an eco-friendly, cost-efficient alternative to tiles.

Visit www.master-thatcher.com or call Clive Brooks on (01249) 811337 or 07831097505.