The water of the Wairau River, which threads through an inland valley in the Marlborough region, was three feet deep and rising. A few miles upstream from Matt Forlong’s family vineyard, the water burst the gravel river banks and poured through the vines, trapping 200 sheep. Any attempt by the ewes to swim to safety left them pinned against the trellis by the force of the rushing water.
Forlong kicked off his boots, waded into the flood, and took a sheep under each arm. He carried them two by two across one of the engorged channels of the braided river to reach dry land and only stopped when the water reached shoulder height.
Forlong is unfazed by the drama of the rescue. “It’s just part of living on a braided river,” he says. Forlong’s rescue is typical of New Zealand farmers in many ways: he had a matter-of-fact approach, he carried out the feat wearing shorts in the middle of winter, and he had sheep in the vineyard in the first place.
Although grazing sheep in vineyards isn’t unique to New Zealand, it’s happening in this island nation on a scale not seen anywhere else.
Sheep are becoming popular
Sending flocks of sheep through vines is a low-impact way to mow, weed, and fertilize a vineyard. And New Zealand has a lot of sheep — 27 million of them, which means they outnumber the people five to one.
Despite needing more hands-on management, and the odd rescue from rising floodwaters, sheep have also proven themselves to be efficient contributors in the movement toward more sustainable winegrowing.
Meredith Niles was the first researcher to carry out a detailed study on the ecological benefits of the practice, after spotting its potential. “Recent estimates suggest that 59% of vineyards are integrating sheep in some way,” she says. “This is really significant because it is literally not happening at that level anywhere else in the world.” She adds that what’s happening in New Zealand is unique. “It is very innovative and it is at the forefront of what is possible in other regions.”
Marlborough is New Zealand’s viticultural heartland, raked with rows of vines from mountain foothills to wild coastline. Around three-quarters of New Zealand wine is squeezed out of the grapes grown in this lush region, so it naturally became the focus of Niles’ study.
“What we found was that 100% of growers said there was a mowing benefit,” she says of the encouraging results. “Two-thirds said there was a positive benefit from a reduction in herbicide use.”
Of the vineyards studied, the average was 2.2 fewer mows per year and 1.3 fewer herbicide applications annually. These numbers might sound small, but they add up, in dollar amounts as well as emissions. The farmers in Niles’ study who saw reduced mowing and herbicide use save an average of $12,405 a year.
“Sheep are used to take care of the weeds and keep the grass short over the winter months. Using sheep lowers fossil fuel use, and therefore carbon emissions, by reducing the number of passes with a tractor.”
Yealands is one of the most coastal vineyards in New Zealand, with vines growing so close to the ocean they are often misted with sea spray. Committed to protecting this outstanding environment, Yealands is certified carbon neutral. They deploy a small — in fact, miniature — army of babydoll sheep in the rolling terrain of their coastal vineyards for this reason. With teddy bear faces and stature of only around 24 inches, the babydolls make adorable lawnmowers. “Sheep are used to take care of the weeds and keep the grass short over the winter months. Using sheep lowers fossil fuel use, and therefore carbon emissions, by reducing the number of passes with a tractor,” explains Tara Smith, the sustainability manager.
Fewer passes of the mower also mean less compacting of the soil and more biodiversity among the vines, allowing insects and bees to thrive.
Lindsay McLachlan, the owner of Peregrine Wines, remembers the exact moment he decided to give up herbicides. He and his wife Jude had just emerged from a lecture at Otago University on the dangers of the herbicide glyphosate. Blinking in the bright sunlight, they shared a look and made the unspoken, spontaneous decision to go organic. More than a decade later, they run their vineyard on a closed system where all inputs come from the land and are recycled back into it after the wine is made. His flock of Wiltshire sheep is an important part of this process.
With their excellent foraging abilities, sheep replace the need for herbicides. They are particularly good at targeting deep-rooted and herbicide-resistant weeds like mallow. “They nibble right up against the trunk, so they keep the vineyard clean and tidy over winter,” says McLachlan.
Sheep are hard workers and multi-task as they mow. “They add a dose of natural fertilizer to the mid-rows, improving the soil quality,” Smith says, deadpan. Their droppings are so effective, Niles found in her research that 27% of the winegrowers studied applied less controversial nitrogen fertilizer.
Grazing sheep in vineyards might be a new trend, but it’s not a new idea.
“It’s been around probably as long as grapes have been around,” Forlong notes of using sheep in vineyards. Despite the development of new technology, sometimes the simplest solution is the best one. Forlong believes sheep are ideal for leaf plucking, which is essential in New Zealand’s cool climate. “Sheep do a better job at leaf plucking than technology can today,” he says adamantly.
Benefits to other farmers
Putting the sheep to work isn’t a one-way transaction; grazing sheep also has the convenient side effect of feeding them. Although Forlong and McLachlan have their own flocks, other vineyards welcome sheep from neighboring farms. Winter grazing can create a happy synergy between vineyards and their sheep farmer neighbors, who need extra feed during the colder months. As Forlong knows too well, winters in Marlborough can be wet, and grazing is harder to come by.
It’s a logical option. Before Marlborough became the wine-producing hub it is today, much of the land in the area was used for grazing sheep.
At the peak of sheep farming in the 1980s, the number of sheep reached a staggering 70 million. Yet, as thirst for New Zealand wine has increased, viticulture has expanded while sheep numbers have dropped.
In Marlborough, large areas of what was once farmland have been converted to rows of grapes. Between 2002 and 2008 alone, more than 56,810 acres of pastoral land vanished, Marlborough District Council figures show. Conversely, according to New Zealand Wine, vineyards now cover nearly 69,160 acres in Marlborough; in 2000, that number was just under 10,000.
Grapes have proven to be more lucrative than lamb and wool, although that hasn’t stopped winegrowers from turning back to sheep to help improve the bottom line and find more sustainable ways of producing wine at scale.
And in turn, grazing sheep in New Zealand’s vineyards gives them a continued place in Kiwi agricultural traditions. Come hell, or on the odd occasion in the Wairau Valley, high water.