SHEEP and VINES?

A recent article in a rival website reported that NYETIMBER VINEYARD are to introduce sheep into their vineyard as a method of keeping down grass and weeds. This prompted an interesting discussion on the merits and demerits of such a policy. John Worontzak, for a long time the winemaker at Stanlake Park, commented that John Leighton, the previous owner had used them in the 1990s and found that they tended to rub themselves against the vines and cause damage. However certain types are used. The favourite types were TEXEL and SOUTHDOWNS. The former have been used at Penarth in Wales. In New Zealand , they have used baby dolls (related to Southdowns) for some years

In Argentina Mario González (Senior), director of La Riojana Cooperativa has tried using sheep. González has used many sustainable methods to maintain the vineyard. They pull up the weeds growing in the vineyard by a Texel sheep flock of around 2000 animals, instead of doing it with machinery

Comments made from Britain were: Jerry Garner: Having only 3 vines and a flock of 30+ sheep (used to be 70+) I cannot say I dared introduce them to the "vineyard"! Do any members recall the Shropshire sheep society had a stand at Fruit Focus 2 or 3 years ago? They claim that this breed does not bark apple trees etc like other breeds tend to. During the dormant season sheep should not directly damage vines provided there is sufficient grass and the necessary mineral licks are supplied. Certainly, well established vines on a high wire system should be OK (I recall the vines at Stanlake Park were high wire). Sheep are very susceptible to copper toxicity (except for a rare breed from the Orkneys) so Guy's advice about copper sprays is good. Sheep and even goats could be really useful if you hate pruning. Many years ago we took an early autumn holiday in Formentera (Balearics). The vines there were goblet pruned and looked like a blackcurrant bush. I was horrified to see hobbled goats and sheep loose in the vineyards until I realised they were nibbling the younger wood back to about 2 buds! Having kept sheep since 1980 I can confirm that the first wish of any sheep is to die. The shepherds job is to postpone that moment for as long as possible!

From Wallingford, Bob Nielsen was less optimistic: Everyone I've talked to says looking after sheep is a hassle. They spend all their time finding new and imaginative ways to kill themselves. Not easy care like pigs who need nothing more than an electric fence and never get ill. However pigs are not recommended for a vineyard unless you're grubbing up - in which case they are excellent! They're also excellent at digging out brambles - they love the roots.

The wine guru Stephen Skelton was equally pessimistic I used my sheep in the '70s and yes they work, but tend to rub against posts and vines. In the summer they will deleaf but again, put their hooves up on the wires and push posts over. Need fencing up tightly and moving on regularly. Not really worth the aggravation and extra work moving fences However, from Giffords Hall in East Anglia there were more favourable comments

We have successfully overwintered Hebredean on the vineyard for the last six years. The advantage are one less herbicide spray, the ability to put organic matter back into vineyard, two less mowing passes and shorter grass than you would ever be able to achieve with a topper at a time when you really need to heat up the soil.
Helpful tips are

  • 2 ewes per acre.
  • Remove for one week after post harvest copper spray.
  • Dispatch tree eaters to the butcher immediately although in reality they only nibble at the shelter belts; we have never encountered vine eaters and judicious use of salt licks has solved the shelter belt problem in the past.
  • Electric fence off new planting (also puts off any deer).
  • VAT deductible costs if a fleece, or carcass or two are sold.

    From Cornwall, some success was also noted. Jamie King (Jays Farm Vineyard) has grazed sheep in his vineyard for many years and Engin Mumcuoglu [enginm@mumtel.com] grazes a specially designed (!) small breed of sheep at his Padstow vineyard. At Camel Valley, success was mixed. Bob Lindo commented that We had 300 ewes here and the main problem is they rub themselves up against posts etc and loosen them. The secret is to set graze them in smaller areas and rotate them quite quickly with a judicious use of electric fencing.

    Do you have any experience (or pictures) of sheep and vines? Please send then in to wines@ukvines.co.uk