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Animals as crucial part of vineyards and the ecosystem | Marta Juega Rivera, Ph.D. 

Much like other agricultural sectors, the wine and grape industry is facing a significant number of environmental challenges which threaten its survival and development in the long term.

What has become evident is that tackling these challenges calls for collaboration between the various business models that operate within the industry as well as with other indirect actors.

This collaborative goal provided the impetus for Porto Protocol, an international non-profit institution committed to making a greater contribution to climate change mitigation. 

This practice-oriented community is built around an open platform where members share resources and workable solutions to common problems in the wine industry. For the sector, Porto Protocol is undoubtedly a place of inspiration for change and collaborative sharing on an international level.

Among its many activities, the community offers Climate Talks, a series of monthly seminars where members discuss and offer solutions on specific subjects.

In order to survive, sheep eat plants, and so the vineyard must provide them with the plants that are essential to their diet. The presence of a greater variety of plant species encourages biodiversity, which in turn helps restore, rather than diminish, ecosystems through agriculture.

The sheep graze in the vineyards, eating the aforementioned plants, as well as weeds that many winegrowers seek to eliminate because they are seen as directly competing with the vines for resources. At the same time, the presence of these animals gives the vineyard a certain level of resistance against pests and diseases.

After completing digestion, sheep produce organic waste—manure—an excellent resource with which to generate compost that can then be used in the vineyard.

Along with crops, animal manure is an ally of soil fertility, providing the micro-organisms in the ground with a source of readily available nutrients, thereby improving the level of organic matter.

In certain parts of Europe, including the DAO area in Portugal, the practice of having animals graze in the vineyards has a long tradition. Wineries have hundreds of sheep and a few sheepdogs. The sheep, accompanied by their guard dogs, head out to the vineyard very early in the morning. In addition, the winery has two employees who assist with the shepherding duties, ensuring that the flock makes it safely across roads. At the end of the day, the sheep return to the winery; a daily activity which repeats for a few months a year.

Grazing sheep

This November, members of the Porto Protocol analysed a fascinating topic: Building Climate Resilience with Animals in the Vineyards.

The idea of working with grazing animals in the vineyard is steadily gaining ground. Based on the available information, it presents winegrowers with a vineyard management tool that is compatible with regenerative, organic, and biodynamic farming practices.

Wineries are increasingly committed to organic, biodynamic, and regenerative viticulture, thereby obliging the sector to find alternatives to the use of agrochemicals in the vineyard. 

Grazing animals, such as sheep, help control grass and weeds in the vineyard, in addition to being a natural source of fertilizer. Integrating sheep into the vineyard is a way of naturally maintaining the nutrient cycle—in other words, a way of establishing circular systems in the vineyard.

From a waste management perspective, the use of grazing animals helps wineries reuse the waste generated during the winemaking process. Some of these residues (seeds, stems, skins) are not beneficial to soil quality, because they can lead to acidification.  However, the winery can feed these organic residues to the grazing animals, thereby creating positive synergies between them and the winery.

These practices help improve the level of organic matter and therefore generate healthier soils with a greater capacity to retain moisture, resulting in more resilient vineyards that are better equipped to handle increasingly volatile rainfall and drought patterns.

And of course, the benefits that grazing animals provide in terms of soil health also facilitate the process of carbon sequestration. Wineries are increasingly measuring and quantifying the amount of carbon captured and stored by their vineyards as part of their carbon footprint reduction process.

It is interesting to see how practices as ancient as working with animals in the vineyard are once again arousing interest in the wine and grape industry. Although this article has mainly focused on grazing animals—sheep—there are a great many little helpers that can assist us in improving the quality of our wines. Once again nature offers us effective solutions to environmental challenges, which is why it is so important to keep working with nature, not against it.