Nature is wonderful and it's incredible how your surroundings change throughout the year; week to week you notice little differences as the seasons progress and change. When embarking on the journey to open your own Forest School, there are some things you expect to be more difficult, like rain and wind, but one thing we underestimated was the mud, We completely underestimated the sheer magnitude of mud! Mud is glorious when its used alongside a mud kitchen, it's fun in puddles and to paint with; there are many fabulous uses for mud. But when it is on a large (seriously, large) scale it becomes a burden; it really adds to the challenge of outdoor education and its a challenge we could do without. When we started out on our Forest School journey we envisaged children bounding around beautiful woodland and on the most part, this is pretty accurate. But in the winter months, our paths become sodden and a sort of quagmire develops. This is not fun. It is hard work.
It can't be helped. As Forest School leaders we have made the decision to dedicate a proportion of woodland floor to Forest School for the greater good; enabling children to learn about flora, fauna, woodlands and respecting our natural surroundings. We try to keep to the same pathways and in the spring the woodland flourishes with cow parsley, nettles and wild flowers. We also try to make up for the damage we may cause to our woodland floor in other areas of the forest; this year we will plant a wild flower garden for the bees, we keep deadwood on our woodland floor to provide habitats for forest creatures and to provide nutrients and nitrogen to other plants. We cordon off and protect trodden areas to allow it to breathe and rejuvenate.
But for the winter months we struggle with the 'quaggy' mud underfoot. We wanted something sustainable and natural to make life a bit easier and to repair our paths and well used areas, with. An easy fix would be a plastic membrane on the ground but this isn't something we want for the woodland and so... to the internet to discover ways of helping our working and learning environment! This is where I came across the 'floating path'.
The floating path using Sheep Fleece dates back centuries has been brought back to bring new life to Lake District and RSPB Scotland's paths. The idea being that the sheep's wool will absorb moisture and repairs the path in a sustainable and natural way. The ancient techniques of burying the wool on boggy land, has been used there to repair well used paths in nature reserves and public parks across the country, but it still reasonably unknown.
We approached a local sheep farmer for sheep fleece. We arranged to collect 15 fleece. These fill a one ton bag and is very heavy! The farmer explained that wool sales were dire last year and he had bags and bags of sheep fleece available. I was interested to learn that UK sheep wool is widely used to make carpets and rugs not for clothing (as I had expected). I paid £30 for 15 fleeces.
We identified a particularly boggy area of our forest floor. Simply lay the sheep wool on the floor. You can layer it for an even better outcome. We did one layer but ensured a good and thorough covering.
The Lake District used pebbles and stone to cover their sheep's wool but we wanted to use something a bit more native to our environment. We used natural woodland mulch. I expect chippings from a local tree surgeon would work just as well. I did a good covering of the sheep's wool with the mulch. I had considered leaving it bare, but muddy, wet boots stick to the wool and it would have inevitably ended up all over the woodland! The bark provides a visually pleasing, natural covering. The sheep's fleece is unclean and smelly, the mulch deducts from this as well.
One of the many great things about sheep fleece is that it doesn't burn; it is just about the only fibre that naturally resists flaming and as soon as the flame is removed it will actually self-extinguish. The wool's high nitrogen content means it will simply smoulder and singe away instead of bursting into flame.
The end result is pretty rough and ready but it is no longer a slippery quagmire. It feels great underfoot. There is a slight bouncy, cushioned feel to it to begin with, but this passes as it settles into the ground. In the warmer months, you can take up the sheep fleece and store for the following winter, if you wish. The woodland animals love it for nest building too!
Overall, we are pretty chuffed with our floating path!