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They prune vines but 'oddly don't eat the grapes': How sheep are helping make Ontario wine

Flocks of sheep and lamb are helping improve Ontario wine this summer — and making life a little easier for Niagara winemakers.

Vineyard-roaming sheep, lamb serve as 'full-time lawnmowers' at Niagara wineries

Several Niagara wineries employ sheep and lamb to tidy their vineyards and prepare them for harvest. Some winemakers call it 'sheep labour.' (Haydn Watters/CBC)

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."

Engel said sheep and lamb enjoy eating the grape leaves because they find it tender and delicious. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

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.

Flocks of sheep and lamb are helping improve Ontario wine this summer — and making life a little easier winemakers. Haydn Watters hit up a few vineyards to see how they do it. 4:01

'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.

Featherstone Estate owners Louise Engel and David Johnson are employing 25 lamb at their Vineland, Ont., vineyard this summer. The animals have become a big part of their brand — they even have a wine called a black sheep Riesling. 'We have forever tied ourselves to sheep.' (Haydn Watters/CBC)

"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.

The black sheep is perhaps the friendliest at Vineland, Ont.,'s Tawse Winery, snuggling and brushing up against those who visit. John-Daniel Steele works in the wine shop but said he often would rather being lying under the trees with the sheep than doing administration in there. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

"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."

'Full-time lawnmowers'

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.

Vineyard farmer Juliet Orazietti said the sheep and lamb's favourite things to eat in the vineyard are clover, alfalfa and trefoil. 'Those are high sugar and high protein plants so that’s their candy and they’ll usually go for that first.' (Haydn Watters/CBC)

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.

Orazietti may farm at the vineyard but she's not really a wine fan. 'I hate to admit it but I’m not a big wine drinker but my husband is becoming quite the aficionado.' (Haydn Watters/CBC)

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."

About the Author

Haydn Watters is a roving reporter for Ontario, primarily serving the province's local radio shows. He has worked for CBC News and CBC Radio in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and the entertainment unit. He also ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont.

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