WEERRIBBEN-WIEDEN NATIONAL PARK, Netherlands — The drone of his small outboard motor cuts through the early morning silence as Wout van de Belt navigates his flat-bottomed punt through the twisting waterways of the eastern Netherlands.

The 57-year-old is one of a small remaining group of professional Dutch reed cutters, harvesting, cleaning and drying reed that is used to thatch houses. They're practitioners of an ancient trade that is deeply interwoven with the watery landscape of the low-lying Netherlands.

"I never have to sit in traffic jams," Van de Belt says as he heads toward his office, passing clumps of reeds lining the banks of a marshy nature reserve in the Weerribben-Wieden National Park, about 120 kilometers (75 miles) east of Amsterdam. "We start at first light and finish when it gets dark."

He first cut reed when he was just 12 and established his own business when he was 18. The trade is in his blood — his father and grandfather before him also cut reed. But van de Belt says the industry is now under threat from cheaper Chinese reed imports. He wants the Dutch government to lower sales tax on locally cut reed to level the playing field.

While their profession is steeped in history, reed cutters have moved with the times. These days, they use brush cutters, hedge trimmers and specially adapted rice mowing machines that chew through stands of reeds, spitting out the stalks that are cleaned, tied into bigger bundles and stacked in large barns to dry out.

The work is cold and hard, though cutters don't work if it is raining as reed cut when wet is lower quality.

Van de Belt says the tough physical labor means that cutters often lose up to 10 kilograms (22 pounds) body weight in their season, which generally starts around Christmas and ends in mid-April. "That's when the brooding season starts and we give the area back to the birds," he said.

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Associated Press writer Mike Corder in Amsterdam contributed.