For generations it was valued for its warmth and comfort, while wool from Scottish sheep helped produce carpets that covered the country’s floors.
But whereas in the past farmers and smallholders could rely on fleece to generate a healthy income, cheaper imports, the loss of processing plants and falling demand have driven wool prices down.
The problem came to a head last year, with farmers apparently having to pay for wool to be removed from their land, with piles of fleece being burned or thrown away.
Now, however, a crofter from Skye has tested a potential ‘carpet’ solution that would not only provide a new and sustainable use for wool, but could help regenerate Scotland’s precious bogs.
Instead of Skye wool being used to create plush rugs for homes, it has been used successfully to create a thick, water-repellent “underlay” for an outdoor path through a bog bog, opening the door to wool becoming a sustainable alternative to traditional plastic. material based.
It also raised hopes that the glut of wool could also be used to help re-wet bogs: tests have been carried out elsewhere involving stuffing wool down drains, securing it in place and creating a conducive environment the growth of sphagnum moss and the regeneration of the bog.
Currently, some peatland restoration projects use a plastic membrane liner to prevent water runoff or involve digging deep trenches that must be backfilled with peat. This process tends to involve the use of heavy machinery, which itself can damage delicate peat environments.
The wool carpet was used on a 100m stretch of the coastal path from Kilmarie to Strathaird on the Isle of Skye, which had become particularly muddy. The path, which is maintained by the John Muir Trust, is regularly used by the community and visitors to the Iron Age fort at Dùn Ringill, and takes walkers on a scenic route past the Kilmarie House, owned and lived in until in 1994 by Ian Anderson. , singer and flautist with Jethro Tull.
Normally, repair work involves laying down a plastic membrane covered with gravel or wood that eventually rots.
However, crofter Skye and John MacRae, a member of the John Muir Trust Skye team, decided to replace the plastic with sheep’s wool to create a “floating path”.
The technique dates back to the Roman Empire, when fleeces were used in road construction to create a layer over waterlogged ground. Wool was also used in the construction of railway lines in Ireland a century ago.
Mr MacRae sourced around 300 raw, unprocessed fleeces from local crofts, including around 50 from his own flock to use as an alternative to geotextile mats.
The fleeces were folded and rolled up before being laid over 80 meters of the path, the remaining 20 meters being covered with a plastic-based mat in order to check their comparison.
The wool-based method protects the peat and soil, allows easy water drainage and prevents the gravel on top from sinking into the mud.
The solution is currently being considered for other island trails and other sites run by the John Muir Trust, which looks after some of Scotland’s best-known sites, including Ben Nevis, East Schieallion and Quinag, a chain of mountains in Assynt, Sutherland.
The Trust maintains approximately 60km of footpaths on the Isle of Skye.
Mr MacCrae said using wool as a base material for outdoor trails is at odds with the days when he was growing up and wool fetched high prices.
“Older small farmers explain that the wool check would be enough to pay your farm rent for the whole year,” he said.
“I remember when I was a kid I was told to go out and around the fences to pick up the spare wool because it had value and was worth picking up.
“But the price is now so low that these days there are people getting rid of it because they can’t sell it.
“I know this year people were just going to get rid of their wool anyway because in theory it would have cost them money to get it to distributors or wholesalers.
“I have about 50 sheep, and this has helped me store my wool and make room in my sheds.”
Farmers and small farmers told the Herald on Sunday last August how they had been left to earn little more than pennies, and in some cases earning no money at all, for the fleeces of their sheep.
In at least one case, a Western Isle crofter ended up owing money to the British Wood Board after the cost of transporting his fleece was deducted from its price.
Others said they were paid little more than the equivalent price of a takeaway coffee for the sheared wool of around 100 ewes, leading some farmers to throw fleeces on the ground as mats to provide grip on muddy walkways, burying them or even burning them.
The slump in prices has been partly blamed on the pandemic and a drop in demand from makers of carpets and mattresses for which most “rough” Scottish fleeces are often used.
Using unwanted wool as a floating underlay for paths in swampy areas and in bog restoration would introduce a more sustainable alternative to plastic-based mats and divert fleece from landfill.
Mr MacRae added: ‘In the past people would have used branches or beech logs to prevent gravel and stones from sinking in boggy areas.
“It’s my first time using wool and it’s definitely a trial run, but it worked really well and everything I can find suggests it will last a very long time.
“All the time I was working on the path I was thinking about where the geotextile material came from, what it cost in terms of carbon to make it and get to Skye, when wool was a local product, basically free and not available. Had to travel to get here.