Thousands of sheep fleeces laid on hills above A55 for vineyard's incredible invention
Andrew Forgrave Daily Posy Countryside and tourism editorInitially the vineyard's owner thought the idea was a joke - but now he believes it can revolutionise winemaking around the world
Motorists cruising along the A55 may be in need of sunglasses as they drive through Conwy in the years to come. Thousands of white sheep fleeces are being laid out in a vineyard next to the expressway to reflect sunlight onto ripening grapes.
The aim is to produce a fuller-bodied Welsh wine that can be produced without chemicals and laborious weeding. A trial at Gwinllan Conwy Vineyard, Llangwstenin, yielded spectacular results and already US and New Zealand interests are looking into the idea.
If the concept takes off, it will also offer an outlet for millions of sheep fleeces that are otherwise virtually worthless. A company selling them direct to Britain’s vineyards was recently established by Sion Jones, son of Llanfairfechan hill farmer Gareth Wyn Jones, who first came up with the idea.
“This is a world-leading development,” said Gareth. “Gwinllan Conwy is the first vineyard in the world to do this. It’s a win-win that is good for wildlife, good for soils and good for the environment.”
This week the vineyard, between Colwyn Bay and Llandudno Junction, took delivery of wool from more than 3,000 Welsh sheep courtesy of Wool & Vine, Sion’s nascent business. Between now and late March they will be laid out around vines on slopes above the A55.
Getting to this stage was a two-year process stemming from a chance observation made by Gareth during a visit to the vineyard in 2021. As a celebrity farmer and social media influencer, he’d been invited to present owners Colin and Charlotte Bennett with a Countryside Alliance “Rural Oscar”– that year they were named the top local food and drink producers in Wales.
Spotting that glyphosate weedkiller was being used around the vines, he suggested an alternative. “For the past eight years I’ve been putting fleeces around apple trees and on my veg patch,” he said. “The idea was to retain moisture and feed nutrients into the soil.
“Lanolin in the fleece also deters slugs and snails. Last year I used them around strawberry plants and the results were absolutely fantastic!”
Colin was intrigued. Hoping to turn the vineyard organic, he was looking for ways of suppressing weeds and grass as they compete with vines for soil nutrients. Plastic was seen as impractical and it provides cover for snugs and snails.
He also needed a way of combating powdery mildew, a fungus that collects in leaf litter around vines and can lay waste to entire vineyards. Herbicides are the conventional solution but alternatives are needed.
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As the EU, and probably Britain, edges closer to a ban on glyphosates, the clock was ticking. “Using Roundup weedkiller is horrendous,” said Colin. “You have to be careful to pick a totally still day so there’s no drift of the spray.
“It’s something we have to do five times each year, so it’s very labour intensive. But it’s necessary. With a glyphosate ban on the cards, everyone in the industry was scratching their heads looking for a solution. When Gareth told me his idea, at first I thought he was joking.”
In October 2021, two rows of 100 same-variety vines were ringed with sheep fleece. For the trial, no herbicide was used and soil and leaf samples were taken to be compared with those at harvest. When Colin got the results, he could hardly believe his eyes.
“We noticed the leaves were a darker green than the others,” he said. “When we analysed them, their nutrients were in perfect balance. It seems that as the fleeces degrade, they release nutrients into the soil, so feeding the vines. The benefits were miraculous.”
An even bigger shock lay in store when grape sugar contents were scrutinised. Belatedly, Colin and Charlotte realised the fleeces offered another, unexpected benefit.
“Being white, they reflect the sun,” said Colin. “It’s a bit like how you get a suntan when you go skiing.
“The fleeces were helping to ripen our grapes and producing high sugar contents. The results were incredible. More sugar means more alcohol and while a couple of per cent may not sound much, our fleece-ripened grapes will produce a wine from classic varieties with a much fuller body.
“Using wool was an absolute winner for us. So we placed an order for more fleeces and by the end of March you will see thousands of them around our 3,500 vines as you drive along the A55.”
Gareth and Sion are now harnessing the idea. They’ve had Zoom meetings with US academics and have been approached by contacts in New Zealand.
British Wool, the marketing board for Britain’s sheep farmers, is ready to deploy its network of producers. As well as providing fleeces, Wool & Vine will also offer farming expertise such as soil and plant testing.
If orders flood in, it will mark a dramatic change in fortunes for a fibre whose value has dipped so far that it is often derided as a weed growing on the backs of sheep. In 2021-22, lower-grade Welsh wool traded at 16p per kilo. Sion sold fleeces to Gwinllan Conwy at £1 each, around three times the market value, so helping to offset shearing losses – farmers pay around £1.60 for each fleece removed.
“Every fleece we sell will take one off the market, helping to drive up prices,” said Gareth. “Being coarser, and traditionally used for carpets, Welsh Wool is more hard-wearing, so will last out in the open for 12 to 24 months. Dags are cheaper still and will provide even more nutrients.
“It’s fantastic news for vineyards and other horticultural businesses. I can see it benefitting orchards and soft fruit producers too. Perhaps before long, we’ll be sending Welsh fleeces across the Continent to France and Spain to supply businesses there.”
Next time you sip the vineyard’s award-winning, environmentally-friendly wines, you may want to raise a glass to the Welsh sheep, and farmers, who made it possible.