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What was normal in vineyards until 70 years ago is now considered a speciality: sheep grazing. The four-legged wool suppliers are useful helpers between the vines - and have a positive influence on soil life and biodiversity.

In past centuries, the grazing of farm animals was one of the elementary pillars of biodiversity in today's cultural landscape. In their fur and hooves, even in their excrement, cattle, sheep or horses dispersed seeds, spores, fruiting bodies as well as small insects and beetles. They ensured the spread of a wide variety of plants and thus also the dense interconnectedness of these biotopes. The changeover to year-round livestock housing thus had a major influence on the decline in biodiversity.

For this reason, a research project at the University of Applied Forest Sciences in Rottenburg called "Win-Win in the Vineyard" has been looking into the question of what advantages arise from land extensification and dual use since 2019. It makes sense to use experiences from landscape management with sheep grazing for the vineyards as well. Landscape managers have long known about the suitability of sheep for grazing from flat to steep terrain, from dry to wet sites and even for soils with the lowest forage yield.

Jean Raphael Buscher has been gaining experience with sheep in the vineyards since 2014. "My father already used extensive tillage to promote humus-rich and revitalised soil. We wanted to take up this approach and expand on it," says the winegrower from Bechtheim in Rheinhessen. Species-rich and flowering greenery, wild bee houses and habitats for insects laid the foundation. "My wife came across sheep grazing in her search for natural soil care. She read up and informed herself intensively," he says of the beginnings. The small flock of Ouessant sheep, a French dwarf breed, has now grown to 35 animals. "The breed is considered robust. These sheep have a shoulder measurement of about 45 centimetres and are ideal for understocking. The daily amount of green food a sheep consumes is just right for a vineyard."

"Rhône Rangers" in the vineyard

For ten years now, Tablas Creek in Paso Robles in California has been working with sheep in the vineyards. The winery was founded in 1989 by Jacques Perrin, owner of the Rhône winery Château de Beaucastel, and the Californian wine merchant Robert Haas. It is one of the pioneers of a movement that popularised Rhône grape varieties in California in the late 1990s under the name "Rhône Rangers". There are 350 sheep in the flock, a mix of undemanding native breeds like Dorper, Kathadin and New Mexico Dahls adapted to the California heat. "We've been working biodynamically since 2010 and wanted to find out if we could use sheep to make our own compost from the plants in the vineyard," says Jason Haas, the son of the late founder. It worked. In 2016, they hired a full-time shepherd for their project and made sheep grazing the centrepiece of their regenerative farming. The farm does not use copper and uses teas and preparations for plant protection.

In Champagne, too, sheep can be found in the vineyards. Around 220 animals of the breeds "Ile de France", "Suffolk", "Solognote", "East for Merinos wool" and also "Ouessants" graze in Moët Chandon's 86 hectares of vineyards. "They even stand on the steep slopes. The flock of sheep is part of the "Natura Nostra" programme, which Moët Chandon launched in 2021 with the aim of promoting biodiversity and working with regenerative agriculture.

VDP vintner Felix Prinz zu Salm from Wallhausen (***) in the Nahe region also had these goals in mind when he decided to use cattle in the vineyards. "The concentrated and short grazing stimulates root growth. The cattle only stand on the same area for a few days. The remaining vital grass further promotes root growth. The manure input promotes living organisms in the soil such as mycorrhiza and increases metabolism and soil fertility," is Salm's goal for the unusual grazing animals on the slopes of the Scharlachberg near Bingen. However, another aspect was even more important to him: "They produce the most valuable fertiliser. They are also invaluable for biodiversity. The dung of a cow feeds countless insects - and in this way about three storks or 350 skylarks per year".

Greater biodiversity, more humus and biodiversity

Sheep also have a demonstrable impact on biodiversity in the vines. "Here it is worth looking at the details," Jean Raphael Buscher explains the benefits. "Sheep ensure the spread of plants and thus biodiversity by carrying seeds in their wool. The biodiversity on areas with sheep grazing is much smaller and more intensive. Not only the large flowering plants, but also many small inconspicuous plants thrive near sheep." Incidentally, the soil life also benefits from the animal visitors: "Our sheep are in the vineyards for half of the year and spread about 70 tonnes of manure during this time, and that without any machines at all," enthuses Californian Jason Haas. They observe a better water retention capacity due to the increased humus content - which incidentally also binds a lot of CO2.

In addition, it saves many tractor journeys as well as labour for foliage work and soil cultivation. This leads to less soil compaction in the vineyards. Sheep keep the growth of weeds in the vines low all year round. The soil also benefits from this, as the project in Rottenburg shows: according to its results, a browsed plant adapts its root mass to the lower leaf mass and sheds part of its roots. These in turn serve as food for earthworms, for example, are metabolised and turn into humus. A simple and effective cycle. Later in the year, the sheep help to clean out the vines and defoliate the grape zone - a job that can hardly be done more meticulously and effectively by hand. However, the woolly animals have to be taken out of the vineyard in good time before the grapes start to ripen. As soon as the grapes become sweet and aromatic, they are also a treat for sheep.

However, there is additional work involved - such as shearing the animals and moving them to other vineyards. At Tablas Creek, they allow themselves the luxury of a shepherd who takes care of everything. Not everyone can afford that. "Sheep grazing is quite intensive. Animals need care and a certain degree of flexibility," Jean Raphael Buscher also knows. In addition, there are acquisition costs for the basic flock, investments in mobile electric fences, a shelter, additional feed in winter and veterinary costs.

Sheep farming is unsuitable for organic winegrowers of all people

Grazing in the vines also requires adjustments in plant protection. Copper, for example, is highly toxic to sheep - so for organic-certified wineries, keeping sheep is often not an option. "We pay a lot of attention to the toxicity values of the plant protection products and do not use copper. So organic certification is out of the question for us. That's a bit paradoxical," Jean Raphael Buscher agrees.

Quite incidentally, the sheep have other positive effects in the vineyard, as the results in Rottenburg show. The field and fence bindweed are among the preferred weeds of the four-legged friends - and of a pest: the bindweed glass-winged cicada. It transmits blackwood disease, a yellowing disease that, in the worst case, causes the vine to die. By grazing the host plants, sheep help to prevent infestation with blackwood disease.

In addition, the animals provide wool and meat. On Tablas Creek, there are cooperations with restaurants that take over the meat, and the wool can also be processed. Or it can be used in viticulture: Wrapped around the roots of young vines before planting, they serve as a water reservoir that can ensure the survival of the young plants in dry summers.

Whether in California, Champagne or Rheinhessen - for all the work and intensity that the use of sheep requires, the positive effects go far beyond the benefits. "We have gained a different feeling for nature, engage differently with the vegetation and its special features. Observing and living with the animals makes us react more calmly," Jean Raphael Buscher concludes. "It has far exceeded our expectations, and it is simply fun," Jason Haas is also enthusiastic. And the same goes for Felix Prinz zu Salm and his Galloways: "The calmness they radiate and the return to natural management is absolutely fascinating and enriching."

You can find out more about the research project at Rottenburg University of Applied Sciences in the documentary for the 3Sat science programme "Nano" (in German).

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Photos: © Moët Chandon, © Prinz Salm Winery

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