The low-carbon wine sheep
Winemaker deploys miniature sheep to cut fuel costs and keep grass short
* Duncan Graham-Rowe guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 22 July 2009
A rare breed of small sheep, the baby doll, is being used on vineyards in New Zealand to keep grass short.
A New Zealand winemaker believes he has struck upon the solution to reducing the carbon footprint of wine ” and the answer, which may come as no great surprise, lies in sheep. Miniature sheep, that is.
There are only 300 of them in the world and they were originally bred as cute miniature pets, but Peter Yealands believes that babydoll sheep could help him to reduce the environmental footprint of his wine.
By allowing the rare breed to graze on the grass between his vines, Yealands says he can dramatically reduce the energy his wine takes to make and ultimately enable the process to be more sustainable.
Wine producers often use sheep to keep grass short, but flocks must be removed when the vines bud because the animals will eat them too. So, to prevent the grass using up precious nutrients and water, and to prevent the spread of disease and fungus, growers normally use tractors to do the job.
With 1,000 hectares in Yealands’ vineyard that means driving 3,500km for each of the 12 times a year the grass has to be mowed. As a result, for Yealands, diesel makes up about 60% of his energy costs. To avoid using a tractor, last year he experimented by letting loose giant guinea pigs. That worked initially, he said. “But once the hawks had a taste for them they were sitting prey. We were losing them by the hour. Besides, we would have needed 11 million of them to make it work.”
Now Yealands has turned his attention to babydolls, a rare breed of sheep which only reach about 60cm tall when fully grown. Because the grapes tend only to start growing from about 110cm off the ground the sheep can’t reach them. Yealands has tested 10 of the sheep on a 125-hectare patch of vines.
By selectively breeding them with another more common sheep, the Merino Saxon, which is favoured for its meat, Yealands now hopes to get his stock up to the 10,000 he needs within the next five years. If successful, the flock should save him NZ$1.5m (Â£600,000) a year in diesel alone, and he hopes to sell the sheep for meat too.
Marleen Stumpel, co-director of AdVintage Wines, a London-based supplier of carbon-neutral wines, said the babydolls are an unusual approach. She said most wine makers reduce their carbon footprint by paying to offset their emissions. “There is a growing market for it, but the wine does tend to be a little bit more expensive,” she said.