Are You Being Fleeced?

Sheep fleeces spread around the vines at Gwinllan Conwy Vineyards in Wales

This is a question vineyard owners in cool climates should start asking themselves, and perhaps follow the lead of Colin and Charlotte Bennett and their world pioneering vineyard, Gwinllan Conwy Vineyards (gwinllanconwy.co.uk) near Snowdonia in Wales.

The first to use sheep fleeces to protect and nourish their vines, the Bennetts planted their first vines in 2012 and had their first vintage in 2016. Colin Bennett wanted his vineyard to be organic
and worried about using chemicals to suppress weeds and grass that compete with the vines for soil nutrients. Bennett says using a weed killer is difficult. It has to be done five times a year and needs a totally still day so that spray does not drift. A way of combating powdery mildew was also needed. Powdery mildew is a fungus that collects in leaf litter around vines and can destroy them.

In 2022 Gareth Wyn Jones, a friend and local hill farmer visited the Bennetts and told them about an alternative to using chemicals on vines – sheep fleece! Sheep fleeces are often termed “a weed growing on the backs of sheep”. They have little market value. In fact, farmers pay far more for each fleece to be taken away. However, sheep fleeces retain moisture and feed nutrients to the soil. Moreover, lanolin in the fleece deters slugs and snails.

The Bennetts trialed fleeces by placing them around two rows of 100 same variety vines. No herbicide was used. The fleeces came from Gareth Jones’ company, Wool and Vine which he runs with his son and has had interest shown in their merchandise from America and New Zealand. “When we analysed the soil and leaf samples taken, their nutrients were in perfect balance. It seems that as the fleeces degrade they release nutrients into the soil feeding the vines,” says Bennet.

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Another unexpected plus was that the fleeces, being white, reflected the sun and helped ripen the grapes and produce a higher sugar content. The Bennetts were so impressed with their trial that this year around pruning time they placed thousands of fleeces round their 3500 vines. They will stay there until they mulch into the soil which can be up to two years.

Another advantage in using warming fleeces around the vines, is that vineyard workers will be spared that unloved chore of getting up at 3.00am on a freezing night to light candles around the vines to protect them from frosty soil.