They prune vines but 'oddly don't eat the grapes': How sheep are helping make Ontario wine
Vineyard-roaming sheep, lamb serve as 'full-time lawnmowers' at Niagara wineries
The field crew is hard at work amid rows of ripening Riesling at Featherstone Estate — manicuring grass, clearing unwanted leaves and getting the vines harvest ready.
At most Niagara wineries, it's a job for humans or a machine. But at Featherstone, it's sheep and lamb doing the pruning. They call it "ewe-nionized labour."
"They put their head up into the vine rows and strip out those great big leaves that are there and oddly don't eat the grapes," said David Johnson, who owns the winery with Louise Engel.
"We surmise that sheep or lambs ... don't eat round things."
Featherstone is one of a few Niagara-area wineries employing sheep and lamb to help make wine. Johnson got the idea while working at a winery in New Zealand, where the practice is much more common.
"They're all over the vineyards," he said.
He brought the practice with him when he came home. He's got 25 lambs in his vineyard this summer, who strip about two acres of grape leaves per week. That allows the grapes to get more sun, which Engel said makes for a better grape.
To learn more — and to hear from the sheep and lambs themselves — tap on the audio below.
'You don't have much control'
It may sound pastoral but it's not without its difficulties. The sheep and lamb have to be looked after, raised and stored inside overnight. Otherwise coyotes could eat them.
"You don't have much control," said Engel.
"If you just hire a crew of field workers, you can say to those people, 'take off 60 per cent of the leaves on the south side only,' but when you've got lamb roaming through, you have to keep a close eye on things because they can over strip."
It's been a learning curve for Tawse Winery, who use sheep and lamb in a similar way to Featherstone.
They started it in order to be certified organic and biodynamic. They've since become an attraction at the winery and gather along the fence line on busy days to meet visitors.
"There is more labour involved in raising sheep for sure," said John-Daniel Steele, Tawse's retail supervisor.
"They're not perfect creatures but they're a great addition in the sense that we see so much benefit from having them here on the farm."
Southbrook Vineyards takes a different approach with its sheep and lamb.
They raise the animals on their own farm before enlisting them in the vineyard. They are put in areas with old vines, rather than active ones like Featherstone and Tawse.
There the sheep and lamb munch, cut back and "fertilize" so old trunks can be cut out and new vines can be put in. The animals run back and forth, from one piece of foliage to another, making the occasional baa.
Juliet Orazietti raises them behind the winery on Linc Farm, which she runs with her husband. She said sheep and lamb are ideal for the job because they aren't picky.
"They'll eat just about everything in here including most of the thistles. As long as you teach them that they can eat everything, they will," she said.
It's been a few weeks since this year's flock hit the fields. After grazing vineyards for the summer, most of the animals are sent to the butcher and end up as food for humans.
It's all part of the farm circle of life for Orazietti, who insists they'll have lived happy, fulfilling lives, helping make wine.
"They're full-time lawn mowers out here ... and that's what they'll keep doing for the rest of their little lives."