Since late February, three Ouessant sheep have been grazing and gambolling among the vines on the Häremillen wine estate. This was the idea of winemaker, Michèle Mannes, who is hoping to expand her flock and, if everything goes to plan, introduce them to some of her more steeply sloping parcels.
Ouessant sheep normally evoke the sea and ocean spray. At least, these are the types of images we usually associate with this breed that has now taken up residence on the Häremillen wine estate at the instigation of young winemaker Michèle Mannes (aged 29), who has brought in three of the animals. Ouessant is a small island off the tip of Brittany in the midst of a great ocean swell. It is permanently battered by strong winds, with little more than low dry-stone walls for shelter. The smaller inhabitants are therefore best protected against the elements, and Ouessant sheep are 50cm tall at the shoulder, making them the world’s smallest breed.
Although their roots are Breton, Häremillen’s three male sheep, were born in Luxembourg (Beringen) last spring. At approximately 10kg in weight, they have almost reached their adult size. Watching them frolic among the Rivaner vines on this parcel in the Reisselt vineyard (included in the Rousemen vineyard), it is clear that they are capable of thriving far from the sea! “I put them there because they are right opposite our cellar. So, I can keep an eye on them during this trial phase to check that everything is going OK.” Her main concern is not so much the behaviour of the sheep themselves, but their interaction with dogs or passing cars, albeit rare out here.
Although a first in Luxembourg, the phenomenon of sheep in vineyards is not new. While the practice is predictably widespread in New Zealand, it is also not as rare as one might expect in Europe. Sheep are a useful addition due to their grazing, which controls the height of grass cover, and therefore chemical weed killers are surplus to requirements on the Häremillen estate. “On our estate, weeding is performed mechanically and sometimes even manually,” says Michèle Mannes. Woolly weeders are now also available!
The sheep will provide us with an even more flexible means of managing cover planting.
Eventually, the idea is to introduce these sheep to the estate’s steepest vineyards, located along the Moselle on the Mäaschtesbierg (which forms part of the Kelterberg). “Manual weeding on these parcels is quite tough,” she explains. “Special machinery is required to do it mechanically. However, this is expensive and we don’t have enough steeply sloping parcels to justify such an investment. We therefore work with other winemakers in these locations. Ultimately, the sheep will provide us with an even more flexible means of managing cover planting.”
In fact, a whole host of benefits are for the taking, since the sheep not only take care of the plant cover, but also infuse the soil with an excellent fertiliser that is “less acidic and better than any other manure”. Moreover, the soil is not compacted by passing machinery, no additional CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere, and the sheep block up mouse holes, preventing the rodents from nibbling at plant roots.
The idea of combining animals and wine-growing occurred to Michèle Mannes while she was studying landscape architecture in Gembloux (Belgium), where she graduated with a master’s degree. “I did an internship with the Luxembourg Nature and Forest Agency, working on the Naturschutz Flësch (editor’s note: “meat protecting nature”) project aimed at introducing hardy cattle breeds (Angus, Galloway, etc.) to highly biodiverse pasture land. This is an appealing idea as it enables extensive farming to be developed to foster and protect these ecosystems, while also maintaining sensitive meadowland.” Since the entire Mannes family is well-accustomed to contact with animals, it ultimately made perfect sense for her to consider applying this approach to the vineyards. “Although this can be done with chickens, pigs and even Shetland ponies, sheep were the obvious choice for me.”
Although this can be done with chickens, pigs and even Shetland ponies, sheep were the obvious choice for me.
However, some experimentation was required rather than just releasing them randomly. “So long as there are no buds or leaves, there is no risk, but once everything starts growing again, we’ll need to be careful they don’t eat everything… I’ve done a lot of research on this, but opinions differ. While some winemakers keep them in the vineyard throughout the year, others remove them when the grapes sweeten, or in some cases, even when the vines begin to sprout. If they only eat the buds around the base, it’ll be OK, but we don’t want them venturing any higher – let’s see what happens!”
All that remained was to name them, which again, was not done randomly! The Ouessant sheep were christened Bo (“short for Rambo because he’s quite pushy and also with those lighter-coloured tips, his fleece looks a bit like surfer’s hair, so he’s a real beau!”), Luss (“because his horns remind me of Lucifer”) and Como (“he’s the acrobat and the Comos were the first family of professional acrobats”). Absolutely nothing has been left to chance!