With 3500 kilometres of mowing to be done every few weeks at his vineyard, winemaker Peter Yealands has come up with a new and novel way to keep the grass under control: miniature sheep.
With the goal of transforming New Zealand’s largest privately-owned vineyard into the most sustainable in the world, Mr Yealands has frequently gone right outside the box to come up with new sustainability ideas to try out.
His latest is about as far outside the box as he can get, with Mr Yealands importing special “baby-doll" sheep, which only grow to a mature height of 45-60 centimetres at the shoulder, to keep the grass trimmed while saving the fruit from grazers who may want to augment their grass-only diet.
He told NBR his main aim was to cut back on the costs of mowing the lawns around his vines and, with the aim of building up a munching flock of thousands of the small sheep, they fit the bill perfectly.
“We have to mow the vineyard about eight to 12 times a year and you’re talking about 3500 kilometres to travel around the 1000ha vineyard. To do this, we have seven tractors mowing all the time and that burns a hell of a lot of fuel.”
Arriving at the small sheep took some trial and error with other animals, with some success, until the predators showed up.
“We investigated the possibility of free range chickens but you would need millions. So then we looked at geese, but they left too many droppings behind.
“We had some success with some big guinea pigs. We reared a few, contained them in a little six-inch fence and built little huts for them and that worked well. And then the hawks moved in and we ended up with most of Marlborough’s hawks hanging around our vineyard, so that didn’t work.”
Scouring the internet, Mr Yealands first found the breed of miniature sheep in the US but was prevented from importing them due to quarantine issues, only to find another breeder in Australia.
“This one person in Australia who did it had an incredibly long waiting list, almost all of which were for individual animals which people wanted as pets. But I managed to convince her to give me the next few she had coming up and we’ve imported the first 10 recently.”
With the goal of establishing a base pedigree stock, Mr Yealands has grand plans for the number of sheep he could have roaming over his vineyard, with the goal of keeping up to 10,000 of the animals on his property if the initial batch work out.
Mr Yealands also has plans for the sheep beyond lawnmowing, including a cross-breeding programme with small Marino sheep for better wool and a possible market for the smaller cuts of meat the animals produce.
He said that if the trial becomes successful, it could “change the way viticulture happens” but at the very least, they could prove a tourist attraction.
“They’re like little bags of meat on legs, but they’re also just so bloody cute. They look a little like koalas at that size.”
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