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Can you let sheep into the vineyard?
This is an interesting topic for quite a few people. You might be a sheep owner and you’re thinking of repurposing one of your pastures to a vineyard, or maybe you’re a wine enthusiast with lots of grapevine-filled lands, and you’ve decided to go as green as you can in wine production. So, can you let sheep into your vineyard and actually not lose all your hard work?
You can let sheep into the vineyard. Sheep can play the role of natural leaf-pluckers and pest removers in most vineyards. But, you can not let them roam freely throughout your vineyard at all times. Some vineyard owners have tried with goats in that role, but with dubious success. Why? Because goats eat with their heads up while sheep eat with their heads hanging down below, and you want your animals to get rid of weeds and not all your vine leaves and grapes.
It can be quite relaxing to watch sheep grazing peacefully alongside grapevines. At the same time, they’re actually doing a good job keeping the vineyard healthy.
Sheep as weed removers in vineyards
As I’ve mentioned above, you can let sheep roam freely through your vineyard and they’ll eat all the weeds that grow at the base of vines first. They’ll also help you by fertilizing the vineyard soil and even reduce your need for tractors in that way. So, basically, you can let sheep in the vineyard for most of the time (from autumn harvest until spring), but consider removing them just before the bud break and especially before the grapes ripen.
So, a good rule would be to let the sheep graze in the vineyard after autumn harvest up until bud break in spring. Take them out of vineyard just before, because they can harm young and fragile grapevines, either by eating them or by scratching at them when shedding their wool. After grapevines get a little stronger you can let sheep back into the vineyard and remove them again just before grapes begin to ripen.
Why do we let sheep into our vineyards? To let them take care of weeds and fertilize the vineyard ground and distribute it with their hooves. In that way, healthy soil with plenty of good microorganisms is created. Sheep also mow the grass and thus reduce our fuel costs.
Using sheep for leaf-plucking in vineyards
Sheep graze very close to the ground. When they strip all your vineyard of ground weeds, only then will they look up and start taking care of the grape leaves as well.
Fruiting zones in vineyards are zones where clusters of grapes grow. Some farmers don’t remove sheep very early from their vineyards. They use sheep to actually remove grape leaves from fruiting zones so that the fruit quality is improved by being exposed to more sunlight and better air circulation. It’s said that by doing this you allow grapes to produce more flavor compounds and actually improve the wine quality. A little exception to that rule are vineyards that actually need those outer leaves for sun protection.
If not by sheep, these outer leaves are usually removed by hand or some other expensive machine. Sheep pretty much love the taste of young and tender grape leaves. Just be sure to remove them from the vineyard before grapes start to ripen, otherwise, you’re going to be left without them as well. Take a look at how one vineyard from Ontario, Canada does that with their lambs:
Why don’t the sheep eat the unripe grapes as well? Well, when grapes are really small, they are very hard, bitter, and astringent (slightly acidic). Sheep really don’t like a taste of that combination.
Advantages of using sheep for leaf-plucking
There are three easily defined advantages of using sheep for leaf-plucking in vineyards:
- Cost savings
- Hand plucking or machines that can do this job can be quite expensive. Even if the vineyard owners don’t have their own sheep, it’s much less expensive to pay for sheep transport to the property (sometimes this can be the only cost) than to hire people to do this job.
- Fuel savings
- There is practically no fuel cost, besides fuel for transport if needed, for sheep as leaf-pluckers. Leaf-plucking machines are big gas/diesel guzzlers.
- Quality of the job
- Most farmer’s experiences are that sheep do a better job than people or machines. They seem to be gentler. They manage to remove inner leaves as well and in this way increase internal airflow and reduce so-called „disease pressure“.
Disadvantages of using sheep for leaf-plucking
OK, next let’s look at some disadvantages as well. There are always two sides of a coin:
- Good management is essential. As mentioned above, you have to be very careful and a very good supervisor of your sheep. In a matter of hours, you can have a perfectly trimmed vineyard and an overly plucked one. Good fencing and fresh water source are also essential.
- This is the most critical part. Remove sheep before bud break, and before the fruit becomes ripe. If you have more grape varieties (e.g. berries become ripe at different times), and you accidentally left sheep to get just a taste of the ripe grapes in your first vineyard block, don’t move the sheep into your other vineyard blocks (even if these berries are not yet ripe) because sheep had a taste of berries and they might jump onto unripe ones as well, despite their bitter taste.
- Chemical use and sheep
- Some chemicals and sprays used on vineyards may actually be a health risk for sheep. Not much research has been done around this topic, so be extra careful so those chemicals don’t end up in sheep meat or milk as well.
- Many chemical producers recommend not using sheep after the use of their products, despite a lack of concrete evidence of risks.
- Avoid products high in copper especially as copper can accumulate in sheep quite easily (can lead to severe illness or death as well).
- Not for everyone
- You might want to skip using sheep as leaf-pluckers in very young vineyards and also check if there are any restrictions in your country markets regarding this topic.
Sheep as pest management in vineyards
Consumer’s needs and wants are changing. The organic and green trend is thankfully gaining momentum. In vineyards that means more animals, and fewer pesticides for pest and weed removals. Many old farms have used random organic techniques for generations, and modern vineyards are picking the pace as well and joining them in the organic race.
Babydoll sheep as perfect sheep breed for green vineyard management?
Babydoll sheep are an old English breed. They’re good-natured and just short enough to be considered the perfect organic weeders, as they rarely harm anything tender on a grapevine.
Muzzle for sheep in vineyards?
If nothing works and your sheep keep damaging your vineyards, you might want to check one product I came upon recently. It’s called WineBAA and it seems like it could be a pretty neat solution for those few innovative sheep that always find a way to annoy you (and damage your best berries). Muzzle prevents them to eat if they raise their heads, but allows them to graze when they are looking down. Cool idea if you ask me.
In the end, regarding this topic, it’s interesting to note that the whole wine industry and its partners are very interested in this eco and sustainable idea and they are very committed to undertaking further research in this area. You can read more at quite an interesting little booklet that focuses on practices that can reduce fuel and electric usage in vineyards.
People with open minds can see sheep as a great step towards more green and healthier vineyards.