14 January 2000

Winter woollies for plants

FRUIT trees and shrubs are being warmly wrapped up this winter, thanks to the efforts of some Herdwick sheep breeders.

Farmers in the Lake District have been supplying raw fleeces to gardeners in Yorkshire who are using them as a mulch and as frost protection for tender plants.

Since prices have plummeted the Wool Marketing Board has only been offering 2p/kilo for Herdwick fleeces. The wool is dark and coarse and contains a lot of hair called kemp. It doesnt dye well and is used in carpets and car panellings.

Sheep breeders are therefore anxious to find new markets. It was Hilary Wilson, of High Carlingill Farm, Tebay, in the Lune Valley, who suggested they might make good mulch. She has planted her own orchard, with 70 different varieties of applies and has used "daggings" the rejected, dirty part of a fleece for her trees and plants.

The family farm doesnt have Herdwicks but Rough Fells, a traditional breed in the Kendal area.

Hilary is a member of the Northern Fruit Group, a bunch of gardeners interested in growing all kinds of fruit, which is based at Harlow Carr Gardens, Harro-gate. Its members readily agreed to experiment with wrapping their apples and pears in winter woollies.

A bulk order of 500 Herdwick fleeces has already been delivered. Measuring two inches thick, two-and-a-half feet wide and four feet long, a fleece can easily be split to fit round a tree or a bush. The gardeners will report back on their effectiveness.

The sheep men are breaking the law if they sell the fleeces to anyone other than the Wool Marketing Board. So they have donated them to the Fruit Group and charged 25p a fleece transport costs.

"We appreciate the efforts the Board has been making to find new markets but we also want to explore alternative uses," said Geoff Brown, secretary of the Herdwick Association. "There are 150 commercial flocks in the central and west Lake District with many having over a thousand head of sheep. About a third of the farmers are tenants of the National Trust and obliged by their leases to keep Herdwicks.

"There is no shortage of supply, but we can only deal with bulk orders. Wool is much more environmentally friendly than plastic or peat. It suppresses weeds and eventually rots, enriching the soil."

Geoff can be contacted on 01768-242130.

Tom Montgomery