Ewe must be joking! Sheep in the vineyard?

NEW YORK Tue Oct 27, 2009 1:11pm EDT

1 of 2. A flock of Babydoll sheep graze at the Navarro Vineyards and Winery in Mendicino, California, in an undated photo.

Credit: Reuters/Terry McCarthy/Navarro Vineyards/Handout

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NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Some vineyards in New Zealand and California are milking sheep for all they're worth.

"Well, they are mini-sheep really. Their proper name is Babydoll sheep," New Zealand vintner Peter Yealands explained in a telephone interview.

"They're a very rare breed, but an old one."

Yealands had to jump through a number of bureaucratic hoops just to get 10 of the Babydolls from Australia to his vineyards in New Zealand's Marlborough region. Wool is his country's leading export, so why import more sheep?

But Babydolls aren't just any sheep, and Yealands was looking for an environmentally friendly way of keeping his 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres) of vines properly maintained during the growing season.

"It's common practice to have normal size sheep - Merino is what we use - to come to the vineyards during the winter when the vines are dormant," he said.

The results are a well-fed flock for the shepherd and a clean vineyard for the vintner. But once the weather warms and the vines begin to bud, the Merinos are banished.

"Let's just say they find grape leaves quite tasty," the 61-year-old vintner explained.

He also tried guinea pigs to solve the problem.

"They were really good at eating the grass and the weeds," Yealands said. "Unfortunately, they attracted hawks. And the hawks annihilated them."

He had heard about California vineyards using Babydoll sheep, which grow no higher than 24 inches.

Sarah Cahn Bennett, the winemaker for Navarro Vineyards and Winery in Mendocino, California, has had a small flock of Babydolls for the past four years.

She started them off in a vineyard that had been planted in the 1980s when the custom was to grow the vines 55-inches tall. The standard now is to grow them no higher than 35 inches.

"The Babydolls work great," she said of the breed, which was originally raised in Southdown, England. "They not only get rid of the weeds and grass between the rows, but they also eat the suckers at the bottom of the vines and we'd have to get rid of those anyway," she added referring to green shoots that come up on the plants in the spring.

Bennett, who holds a graduate degree in viniculture, laughed as she remembered that she now also has a certificate in sheep sheering.

"Generally, you have to sheer them once a year," she said as the flock ambled through rows of vines bearing Pinot Noir and Gewurtztraminer grapes.

She had just put up another 20-acre vineyard designed with the Babydolls in mind.

Yealands, who is experimenting this year with a flock of six rams and four ewes and has more on order from an Australian breeder, hopes that he will match Bennett's success with the Babydolls and in the process "reduce our operational costs by more than NZ$1.5 million ($1.1 million) annually."

Although the Babydolls don't produce much milk Bennett sells the wool they produce to off-set some of their expense, which makes them a bit of a .... baaahgain.

(Editing by Patricia Reaney)

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