This article was written for the Guardian
It has Prince Charles as its patron and a recent show at Somerset House celebrated its sense of style, but could wool have a future as a conservation textile too? Over the last three years, a band of artists and volunteers have been installing healing plasters of wool on the side of a Welsh mountain in a bid to control landscape erosion and protect a valuable swathe of peat.
Back in 1976 a fire on the side of Pen Trumau in the Black Mountains left a 70,000 metre square scar burned into the hillside. A huge section of peat was exposed and has been eroding ever since. It’s estimated that 6,125 tonnes of carbon have escaped so far. Over 30 years later, artist Pip Woolf first witnessed Pen Trumau’s “black hole” on Google Earth. She was shocked by its extent but inspired by its potential to be transformed.
“There’s a black space,” thought Woolf, “if we covered it in wool it would turn white, and the long term picture would be that it would turn green.” The reality was it would take an awful lot of wool to cover, so her original idea for an absorbent woollen patch turned into ‘The Woollen Line’, an artistic experiment that’s slowly attempting to heal the mountain’s great wound, stitch by stitch.
A bold white streak
Together with some volunteers and a bale of washed wool from the Wool Marketing Board, Woolf spent the cold February of 2010 making felt by hand. Heather seeds were embedded into the fabric. The felt was pegged onto Pen Trumau, leaving a bold white streak on the dark landscape. It’s now faded enough to miss on foot but is still very visible viewed from above – the area’s gliders have taken the most dramatic pictures.
So why put all that wool up there? “The whole reason the site won’t vegetate is because it’s completely mobile,” explains Woolf. “If it’s wet, the peat is washing off, if it’s dry it’s blowing off. Once peat loses its vegetative cover it oxidises and releases carbon in all sorts of ways. You’re losing carbon storage, water storage and grazing land.”
The hope is that the wool will slow things down, making the site more hospitable to plant life and less vulnerable to erosion. Ask Woolf if the experiment is working though and you’ll get short shrift. “The whole reason peat forms on the top of Welsh mountains is that it’s cold and wet, and everything happens very slowly up there,” she says. “Demanding a green result that quickly is foolish, it’s bad science.”
Sausages to save an SSSI
The project has evolved since the first Woollen Line was laid. Hand making felt was time consuming and none of the heather germinated. So the focus has moved onto wool ‘sausages’, first to pack erosion channels and more recently laid in a line along the top edge of the scar. Woolf now pays farmers to stuff nets with wool they can’t use for anything else. “It’s wool that’s absolutely worthless to the farmer but not worthless to this,” she explains. “They get a rid of their rubbish wool, I get my sausages – it’s brilliant.”
The Pen Trumau mountainside is an SSSI, so throughout Woolf has had to convince ecologists to support her experiments. “Nobody’s done anything on this site for 35 years, but as soon as the ecologist touched one of the wool sausages everything changed,” she explains. “The wool is the language people understand.”
Encouraging new growth is the project’s ultimate aim and where the heather failed, grass is proving more successful. Last year volunteers collected seed and cuttings from cotton-grass and wavy hair-grass and propagated them. Out of 600 plugs planted along the Woollen Line last year, 300 plants are now growing well.
Land art on a mountainous scale
As well as a piece of community conservation work, the line is land art that’s leaving a lasting impression. “It’s almost like leaving a dirty great footprint,” admits Woolf. “I remember coming down early on and thinking I can’t take this back. I do struggle with plonk-it art in the landscape and would hate for it to be a Pip Woolf mark on the hill… but I have to stay there until I can find a really positive way for it to have its own life.”
The project continues and this spring the plan is to create a wool spiral on part of the scar that is yet to be touched. And until the end of the month, an artistic exploration of Woolf and her 750 volunteers’ labours so far is on show in a cold but atmospheric barn in Crickhowell.