We love them and we hate them

Our 25-year celebration story this month is about birds. That joyful song we regularly hear when we step outside becomes ominous when grapes or olives are ripening.  They can decimate a crop. Either by eating the berries or olives (starlings, thrushes and blackbirds), or pecking holes (waxeyes) which allows disease to develop.

When we first started growing grapes, most vineyards were using side nets. Long rolls of netting that we would stretch out either side of the row of vines, covering up the fruit. We were assured that so long as we pulled it tight and clipped it well at the bottom, that our grapes would be safe. That birds tried to come up from the bottom of the nets but would not try to get inside from the top. They were wrong. Birds, in particular waxeyes, are very determined creatures, particularly on a cold autumn morning when they are desperate for sugar. They use the tiniest gap anywhere to get into the nets and eat fruit. We would use bread bag clips to try and hold the nets tight. One year we used 25,000 clips and it still didn’t keep the birds out.  The year that Mike had to go to a family funeral in the US in the lead up to harvest, leaving Margaret to patrol the vineyard, he came back to Margaret stating adamantly that she was buying over row nets for the next season. No longer was she prepared to spend hours everyday chasing waxeyes out of the nets.

Blue Earth Estate netted grapes. Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris

‘Over row’ or ‘lock out’ nets cover multiple rows and reach down to the ground on either side. This was going to be so much easier.  We got the sales rep to come and measure up. We got a frame made to go behind our tractor to help feed out the netting. We organised people to help us pull it out and peg it down as this was going to need more than just us. We went out to start the task of putting them on with so much optimism. The first net was a rude awakening. They had given us the wrong size nets.  Much stretching and hammering later, we had a makeshift cover, but we were exhausted and it was only partially successful in locking out birds.  When the season was over, the company selling the netting came back, took away the nets and made new ones for us. We asked them to allow extra so we could be confident of it being easier next time.  And it happened again. Next season was only marginally easier than the last.

By the third season we had the right size nets. Feeling somewhat smug we finished the task of putting the nets on and pegged down in a few days.  We got up the next morning to discover that our rabbit population did not like these barriers that had been put in their way. They were not deterred, just chewed their way through and made holes in the nets. About fifty holes. Much of that day was spent sewing up holes – some we could just pull together, others we had to patch. The following morning our inspection showed that most of the holes were back – the rabbits had just chewed through the patches. No longer were we just chasing birds, but we were now battling rabbits.

Over the years we have tried many things to discourage birds. Hawk kites, CDs hung in the vineyard, shooting rabbits, and leaving them out to encourage hawks, riding around the vineyard on the farm bike honking the horn, banging tin cans, firing shotguns into the air. Some help a little. Others are a waste of time. We have learnt to have great respect for how smart birds are.  And how persistent.

Along the way we have encountered different bird threats. Magpies have developed a taste for grapes in recent years and will bull doze their way under the nets. It is rather off putting to have a magpie swooping at you when you are working under the nets.  The year we decided to release pheasants on our property, they were very good at making their way into the nets but couldn’t find their way out.  Many evenings we had to lift up the end of the nets and escort the pheasants out. 

This year’s bird pest was a flock of wild turkeys who adopted the vineyard. Early in the season they were helpful as they ate a lot of the weevils that can damage fruit. But once the fruit ripened, they would lean against the net, their heads the same height as the fruit, and eat the berries through the nets. We are encouraging them to move on before next season.

And at the same time, we love having so many birds here. We send very confusing and contradictory messages by planting trees that will attract birds and building a pond. Luckily the native birds do not have a taste for grapes.  At least not yet. But the battle with starlings, thrushes, blackbirds, magpies, waxeyes and turkeys continues.