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Rescuing Dry Stone Walls from Oblivion

A European programme focussed on the Greater Region aims to restore to their erstwhile splendour dry stone walls which for centuries supported terraces – until they were mostly destroyed when vineyard plots were joined together. It’s not too late to save those that remain.

Over the past fifty years, the landscape of the banks of the Moselle has well and truly changed. For centuries, the slopes here were terraced so that vines could be grown. In the middle of the 19th century, when Luxembourg joined the Zollverein (German Customs Union), wine production greatly increased. On the other side of the Moselle, as the wineries needed grapes to make sekt (sparkling wine) the Grand Duchy provided them in great quantities. On the western side of the river, many vines were planted and more and more terraces were built with dry stone walls.

The landscape continued to be shaped this way until the 1970s, when vineyard plots started to be joined together with the main goal being to maximise the planted area available and to make enough room for machinery. As bulldozers knocked down the walls and flattened the land, the vines per hectare density increased. Dry stone walls have only survived in those few areas where vines plots have not been consolidated. However, there are some still in well-known places such as Palmberg (Ahn), Wousselt (Ehnen) and Koeppchen (Wormeldange).

We estimate that in Luxembourg there are still a hundred or so kilometres of walls

A European InterReg project “Dry Stone Walls in the Greater Region” was set up two years ago to run over a four-year period (2016-2020). In the Grand Duchy it is being managed by natur&ëmwelt and the Mullerthal Nature Park and also involved are the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Infrastructure, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Labour.

For the first time in ages, dry stone walls are making a return in vineyards. “We estimate that in Luxembourg there are still a hundred or so kilometres of walls,” says Pascal Armborst, who is running the project for natur&ëmwelt along with Yves Kail. “However, this estimate is on the low side since many walls are hidden away on long abandoned, fallow ground.”

At the moment Luxembourg has no dry stone walling expert. As part of training activities that aim both to pass on this expertise to volunteers (working for the municipality and the Nature, Forests, Bridges and Roads administrations, etc.) and help the unemployed get back into the labour market, an expert from Switzerland, Martin Lutz, has come to Luxembourg to share his know-how. Two work sites have been opened since the end of the summer: one in Greiveldange (in the Häreberg) and one in theäreberg)H, Canach/Gostingen organic vineyard, a plot which the Fondation Hëllef fir d’Natur started to cultivate again in 1995 and which is the oldest organic vineyard in Luxembourg.

Ideally local municipalities would contact us to set up joint projects so that we can then work together to save these dry stone walls.

In Greiveldange, for about a hundred metres, a dry stone wall runs along the “Wäin a (Kul)tour” vineyard walk for which a brochure is available from the municipal offices and on the Stadtbredimus website. “The site was set up as part of a training workshop and then BIRK (Beschäftegungs Initiativ Réimecher Kanton: an association aiming to create employment in Remich Canton) took it over and finished off the work,” explains Pascal Armborst who welcomes Stadtbredimus’ determination (Greiveldange is a local village) to bring back to life this forgotten part of its local heritage, especially as other projects are now being considered.

In Canach, 6,600 square metres of vines belonging to Fondation Hëllef fir d’Natur have been planted in the heart of a protected nature area. “The ideal place to showcase good practice!” says Pascal Armborst enthusiastically. Workshops have been run there since 2014 and this autumn it was the turn of the boundary wall at the top of the slope to be given a new lease of life.

The InterReg project sets out to kick-start collective awareness: “Ideally local municipalities would contact us to set up joint projects so that we can then work together to save these dry stone walls.” They attract tourists, promote biodiversity and are beneficial for the vines: the gains are shared by everyone.

“Mechanisation and landscape preservation are not incompatible!”

According to the Swiss expert Martin Lutz, vines have much to gain from growing close to dry stone walls – and his country has already proved this.

What can a dry stone wall offer its immediate environment?

Martin Lutz: Many things! First of all, there’s the heritage value but also the biological value. There’s great biodiversity in a dry stone wall, both as far as flora is concerned – mosses, lichens, crassulaceae (plants with thick succulent leaves) – and fauna – lizards, slow worms, insects, spiders and so on. Butterflies love this environment. One of the great things that dry stone walls do is that they prevent soil erosion. For example, whenever there are heavy rains, the earth doesn’t run off to the bottom of the slopes as it does in plots that have been joined together.

The only part we can see is the face of the wall, what lies hidden away?

The rule is that a wall should be half as deep as it is high. So if a wall measures two metres in height, it should be one metre in depth. There’s a lot of weight in a dry stone wall, along the front you have to reckon on one ton of stones per square metre. So it has a long lifespan. If it’s well-made it will last a century or two – or even longer.

This is physical work, it’s practically impossible to use machines to help. To be a good wall builder what qualities do you need?

You have to be patient and persevere until you find the right stone to fit in the right place. This is manual, intellectual and physical work. In one day, an expert can move between two and three tons of stones. It’s not for everybody this sort of work; you have to have a certain mentality to be able to stick at it. And enjoy it!

What specifically do dry stone walls contribute to a vineyard?

Dry stone walls create a microclimate through the heat that the stones absorb during the day and then give out during the evening. Vineyards planted on terraces are always a few degrees warmer which is excellent for maturing grapes, often enabling great wines to be produced. The stones are also home to insects which feed on parasitical vine pests (in particular typhlodromus which feed on mites).

Is it possible both to have terraces and mechanise the winegrower’s work?

I’m from Switzerland and in the Valais wine region there are 3,000 km of dry stone walls in the vineyards there. Sometimes, only one in two is kept so that the terraces can be widened to make room for tractors which can climb up using dry access ramps. So mechanisation and landscape preservation are not at all incompatible!

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