Wendy Outhwaite of Ambriel Vineyard in West Sussex reports on her experiences of using the Ouessant – a hardy dwarf sheep from Brittany – in her vineyards.
We’ve been winter-grazing sheep in the vineyard for about a decade. Here’s what we discovered.
As our vineyard in West Sussex has stunning views over the South Downs, when we first thought about sheep, obviously we opted for a South Downs derivative. 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 the green and pleasant land of 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 considering 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 and with 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.
Ouessants are best not eaten. Let them graze. They are perfect for 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.
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.
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.
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. If sheep are crash-grazed, so they eat everything indiscriminately, they will usefully control even difficult weeds, so you can ditch herbicides.
Sheep in the vineyard provide free, self-distributed fertiliser. No need to buy it. No need to spread it.
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.
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 (https://www.ouessantsheep.org.uk/ ) 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.