A group of volunteers in Leitrim have borrowed an idea from the Roman empire and are using sheep's wool to construct a walking trail along a sensitive area of upland.
Members of Mountain Meitheal North West (MMNW) are believed to be the first in the country to trial this technique, using fleeces from sheep grazing on nearby hills, to protect part of the popular Leitrim Way walking route.
Bryan Fennell, Leitrim’s Rural Recreation Officer said the project will help counteract the phenomenon of “trail creep” where walkers anxious to avoid boggy land, spread out and unwittingly damage vegetation, which is protecting the peatland underneath.
He discovered that in Scotland, sheep fleeces have been used for 30 years as a barrier between soft peatland and the stone surface of walking trails – a more environmentally friendly option than plastic membrane, or wood, which rots.
"In fact it's a very old technique used across the Roman empire when they were building roads on water-logged ground throughout Europe, " Mr Fennell explained.
While sheep's wool has never been used on walking routes in Ireland, it was used over 100 years ago in the construction of rail lines such as the Enniskillen to Sligo line, he discovered.
Around 20 volunteers from MMNW meet every two weeks to work on a 120m stretch of the Leitrim Way in the townland of Tullyskeherney, close to Manorhamilton.
Frank McMahon, who is working with the Croagh Patrick Stakeholders Group which formed to tackle erosion on that mountain by creating a defined path, has been volunteering with MMNW, a branch of Mountain Meitheal Ireland.
“The work is very rewarding, especially when walkers come along and see what you are doing and you get positive feedback,” he said.
The team has been contacted by groups all around the country who want to protect trails in their area.
Silvia Borbein, one of the founding members of MMNW, which was set up last year to help preserve walking trails in counties Leitrim, Sligo and Roscommon, said the group was delighted to work with Leitrim Development Company who funded the project – and with the local farmer who provided the fleeces and helped them by transporting materials.
The process involves a layer of fleeces being placed under four layers of stone.
“Over the last few years, walking has exploded as a sport in Ireland,” explained Mr Fennell. He said some walkers instinctively avoid muddy areas and spread out over blanket bog, not realising the damage they do as a result.
“What we want to do is create defined tracks,” he added.
The volunteers use no heavy machinery so the work is labour-intensive and they do just one 10m stretch every time they gather.
“Everything is done by hand, there is not one machine, not one power tool,” stressed Mr Fennell. The route is being topped with limestone chips which blend in with the local landscape.
Up to 700 fleeces will be used for the 120m stretch.
“The beauty of this technique is that you can shear sheep on the side of a hill and put the fleece directly into the track because the wool needs no treatment.”