VIGNERONS FEELING SHEEPISH? - Ambriel Sparkling - English Sparkling Wine


  REGENERATIVE VITICULTURE – CAN SHEEP HELP? Yes they can. If you want to regenerate the soils in your vineyard, bring on the sheep. Most vineyards are a monoculture. Although English vineyards tend to have been planted initially into green and pleasant land, they will not stay idyllic without effort. Monocultures are notoriously bad for […]



Yes they can. If you want to regenerate the soils in your vineyard, bring on the sheep.

Most vineyards are a monoculture. Although English vineyards tend to have been planted initially into green and pleasant land, they will not stay idyllic without effort. Monocultures are notoriously bad for soil health,  particularly if soil fertility is depleted without being replenished, and heavy fossil-fuelled tractors compact the soil. However, a wild, unkempt vineyard is usually an unsuccessful one. So what is to be done? There is no panacea, but we’ve been winter-grazing sheep in the vineyard for about a decade. The Regenerative Viticulture Foundation asked us to share what we discovered. You can read the full article at http://The Noble Ouessant – vineyard sheep du choix? – The Regenerative Viticulture Foundation 


As our vineyard in West Sussex has stunning views over the South Downs, when we first thought about sheep, obviously wanted a South Downs. I was aware of Babydolls, the short sheep in Australia sometimes called the ‘teddy bear sheep’. Their adorable faces, constantly smiling (which, rather like a dolphin, is an anatomical quirk) seemed charming. Babydolls evolved from South Downs sheep after going to Australia. While South Downs in the UK got bigger and bigger, in Australia they got smaller and smaller. Originally, I wanted to bring Babydolls home to West Sussex. Sadly, I was thwarted. There aren’t many Babydolls in the UK, and most are kept as pets. Time for plan B: Ouessants.

Our flock of ouessant sheep were brilliant. I now feel ashamed of ever looking at any other breed. Ouessants (aka the Breton Dwarf) are funny, hardy characters. They are one of the smallest sheep in the world – typically about 46cms tall, weighing in under 20kgs.

The island of Ouessant, off the coast of Brittany – after which they are named – is an inhospitable place: battered by the Atlantic Ocean. It has very poor rocky grazing. Ancient mariners abandoned a flock of sheep on the island, presumably as a future food source. Sadly, most of the sheep died, but the survivors became small –  its called ‘island dwarfism’.

Our ouessants had thick black coats (although others have brown and white fleeces) which disguised their proportions. So many visiting chefs became misty-eyed, hoping to serve ‘vineyard-grazed sheep,’ only to be disappointed by there being ‘only a mouthful!’ It was ever thus. In 1899 Paul Gruyer complained that ouessants’s thick fleeces ‘makes them appear to be of a reasonable size.  But when the scissors have passed over them, there are only beasts below the size of a dog’.  Unscrupulous butchers in the nineteenth century would buy adult ouessants to sell as lamb.

Winter-grazing vineyards

Don’t eat ouessants. Let them eat instead.  They are perfect for grazing vineyards – even newly-planted ones. They’re so small that when they lean against a trunk to scratch vigorously, the vine stays upright and undamaged. They are light enough not to churn the mid-rows into a mudbath. In fact, they stylishly graze both chateau parkland and Paris to maintenance-graze without damage.

Their little hooves make useful little divots in soft ground – just perfect for over-sowing with wildflowers or a cover crop. Ouessants remain fairly self-reliant: they like to see you for a feed, to have a quick nuzzle and a chat, but then they’re back off to the important job of nibbling. We have never had ewes, but I’m told they will go off on their own to give birth unaided. They are a hardy and healthy breed.

As well as being the most environmentally-friendly, fossil fuel free lawnmowers, Ouessants will also trim any hedges they can reach.

Summer grazing

Some people keep sheep in their vineyard throughout the year, trusting that they are too short to eat tasty little buds. We were never brave enough. Our little chaps would quite happily stand on their hind legs to nibble anything delicious. They could not resist temptation. So our sheep were there from post-harvest to pre-bud. In Australia, sheep left in the vineyard until veraison will graze the vineyard mid-row and under-vine area, and eat water shoots. If your bud-rubbing is as back-breaking as mine, this could be the solution.  Historically sheep grazed near hops and nibbled off the sweet, new leaves exposing the hops to sunshine. They could do they same for grapes.

If you’re tempted to give Summer grazing a go, perhaps experiment with sheep in one area of the vineyard first to crash-graze. Let them eat everything you would like them to eat, before moving them on. Don’t give them too much room: they will just pick and choose what they like to eat, avoiding their least favourite foods. Given lots of space, they tend to amble along a preferred route to their best spots, making paths (and potentially compacting wet soil) as they go.

Fair warning – sheep do not walk around obstacles. If you have piled prunings neatly in the mid-row, they will walk through them dragging canes in their wake.

You will need appropriate fencing (temporary electric fencing is fine) and water.


Sheep grazing keeps a low sward that allows frost to roll off. It is really helpful in the UK. In fact, there are times in the vineyard when it is important to raise the temperature and reduce the amount of moisture: flowering and fruit set, veraison and ripening. Sheep would be brilliant for keeping the grass short to do that.

Fuel saving

If the sheep are eating weeds and mowing your vineyard, then you don’t have to. There is an obvious saving of both fuel and labour.

War on Weeds

If sheep are crash-grazed, they will eat everything indiscriminately. This means that they will eat – and therefore control – even difficult, persistent, invasive weeds. You can ditch herbicides (another saving on fuel, labour and chemicals).

Soil improvement

Sheep in the vineyard provide free, self-distributed fertiliser. No need to buy it. No need to spread it. When it comes to sheep, just ‘field’ and forget.


Visitors love sheep. We have footpaths through our vineyards, and if you have characterful sheep people are enchanted by them. They are intrigued by our boys’ curly horns and want to touch.

Sadly, not all visitors are benign. With many more people enjoy the countryside, some are unwittingly accompanied by a canine killer. It is heart-breaking to find a savaged sheep dying or dead. No sheep farmer I know has escaped this terrible experience. Brace yourself.

Sheep farming

Of course, there is a potential source of additional income if you decide to breed sheep for meat or wool. This is beyond my expertise.

However, many sheep farmers would be grateful for some extra grazing – particularly when the grass stops growing in the winter. If you are not a shepherd, but would like the benefit of sheep, befriend one.

Where to get sheep

As a rare breed, ouessant sheep are thin on the ground. The ouessant society can help. We volunteered to take the wethers (castrated males) as boys not needed for breeding tend to have shorter lives.  Whichever breed you get, your vineyard (and your wallet) will thank you.





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