Falconry at Featherstone

For Louise Engel and Dave Johnson, the decision to fly a raptor over their 23-acre vineyard and winery really was a no brainer.

Like so many other fruit growers across North America, the owners of Featherstone Estate Wineries in Ontario’s Niagara Region had waged a frustrating war against starlings. A flock of 5,000 can consume a ton of fruit in just 10 days, though they cause even greater damage by pecking many more berries than they eat. The weeping fruit attracts fruit flies, which encourages rot.

Grapes are often the last crop to be harvested, long after cherries, strawberries and tender fruit have left the field. Bugs are starting to disappear. By October, grapes are one of the last food sources, a juicy-fruity one no less, visible from the sky.

“When you look at that vineyard, and you’ve looked after and babied these vines along, and it’s now October 10th and the fruit is loaded and healthy and you see a flock of starlings — of five, six or ten-thousand just descend on you — and we run out and we’ve got all kinds of cannons and bangers, it is breath-takingly annoying,” says Johnson.

“When she said she thinks she has a solution, it was a no brainer.”

Engel attended a bird of prey demonstration in October 2003, four years after the couple bought an established vineyard and opened Featherstone. She returned determined to take up falconry, undertook the 15-month certification required in Ontario and purchased a Harris Hawk named Amadeus.

Today she is president of the 200-member Ontario Falconry Club. While falconry is a common bird abatement technique in the U.S., she’s not aware of anyone else really adopting the practice in Canada.

“We’re certainly the only winery that has a resident bird of prey or that does it on a regular basis.”

While Featherstone continues to use noise makers and netting against starlings, few things work quite like Amadeus. “The one thing they never get used to is hawks silhouettes,” says Engel. “When you put a bird of prey in the air, everyone leaves and it becomes very quiet.”

But only for a while. Like nets and noise makers, falconry has its limits. Starlings will find the holes in nets, and they’ll return when the noise dies down or Amadeus leaves the sky.

“So it’s effective while I fly him. But then I put him away and go do other things, and it ceases to be effective,” explains Engel. “So it’s really best not to get on too much of a routine, to fly him as periodically as I can.”

After spending one long night looking for Amadeus, Engel no longer flies him without a tracker. He is a bird of prey, she stresses, with no emotional attachments. He can and will leave if and when he wants to. But she relies on a trust relationship – a rather mercenary one, to be clear – to bring him back at the end of each flight.

Amadeus views Engel as a source of hunting opportunities. On a regular basis, she provides him with the chance to hunt starlings and, if he catches something, he gets to it eat it. Since he frightens away far more prey than he catches, Engel is also a ready source of food. When he returns empty handed, she greets him with bits of quail.

“So there’s a bond there that is predicated on positive reinforcement and hunting.”

Harris Hawks are a popular choice for beginners. They are one of the few avian predator species that hunt in castes, a family unit akin to a wolf pack, working collectively in the wild. Falcons, by comparison, each own the sky.

“When I, as a falconer, am in the field with them, that kind of fits in with their paradigm quite naturally,” says Engel. “They’re a little less independent and a little more predisposed to want to work with you to find hunting situations.”

Adding Amadeus to the mix of pest abatement strategies fits will Engel and Johnson’s eco-friendly approach to viticulture. They live on their 23-acre property, farming 20 acres of it, and have a vested interest in being responsible stewards.

Featherstone has been insecticide free since day one and has adopted a range of natural practices to deal with pests that threaten the vines. That includes using diametaceous earth (which is abrasive and irritating to insects), bringing in beneficial predatory insects like the ladybug, and using pheromones to disrupt mating cycles. In 2008, they purchased a recycle sprayer to capture and re-use any spray that does not stick to the vines.

Johnson is especially focused on natural ways of keeping his soil as healthy as possible. He plants cover crops (25 percent legumes, 25 percent daikon radish and 50 percent rye grass) between rows of grapes. And he’s determined to fight soil compaction by reducing tractor passes, aiming to reduce the total by one pass each year.

“The big issue for us, and the thing we’re working on all the time, is compaction of the vineyard floor,” says Johnson. “We’re trying to get tractor trips reduced. I think that’s more important than organics, biodynamics or anything else. We need to get the equipment out of there.”

To that end, Featherstone has adopted ‘lamb labor’ to help keep the vineyards ‘sheep shape’.

Johnson first learned of the practice in 2007, when he spent time in New Zealand as a guest Pinot Noir specialist at the Sileni Estates Winery and Cellar Door. He’d noticed that the leaf pulling was flawless — the low fruit zone was cleared, allowing sunlight and air to reach the grapes, while the upper canopy looked unmolested — and wondered how that was accomplished.

Featherstone was paying migrant workers $200 to clear each acre. Selini was letting sheep do it for free.

“They can’t afford to irrigate a pasture for sheep,” says Johnson, “and the vineyards are all fenced to keep the sheep out. Then, at a certain time of year, they open the gates and they allow the lambs to flood into the vineyards. They strip out the grass, then pick their heads up and start eating those lowest leaves.”

Featherstone has been using lamb labor ever since. Each February, they purchase 25 or more baby sheep and begin confining them to one-hectar areas as soon as the first varietals, the Pinot and Chardonnay grapes, need leaf clearing. That seems the perfect number to fully clear a hectare in roughly 10 days, after which he moves the flock to the next area. By the fall, they’re clearing the Cabernet Franc.

Sheep are perfect because they eat only the leafs. Goats, Johnson points out, would eat everything and likely destroy the vineyards. Lambs, it turns out, are also the perfect size.

“What we worked out here is that they need to be no more than 22 inches high at the shoulder. Otherwise,” he explains, “they reach too high and are stripping too many leaves. So we have set the vineyard and pruned it particularly so that the fruit zone is sitting at 22 to 32 inches above the ground. And that is the reaching height of a lamb.”

For Engel and Johnson, these eco-friendly practices are about living a more natural life, a life where all aspects are as fully integrated with nature as possible.

“We’re interested in complete integration, in being integrated in all aspects of the property. And capitalizing on natural relationships where possible,” Engel explains. “Whether its natural predator-prey relationships, or its help that just sort of naturally graze in the vineyards and then help you with leaf removal, those kinds of integrations really appeal to us on a number of levels.”

And the approach seems to be producing one key result: great wines. Featherstone turns 20 this year and was just named Winemaker of the Year at the Ontario Wine Awards. The judges recognized Featherstone’s consistent quality across the portfolio, successes in wine awards and overall contributions to the industry.

But Engel and Johnson realize that their approach is not for everyone. For one thing, it reflects their personal beliefs. And, they acknowledge, economics and other factors would make all of these practices more challenging if Featherstone were larger, or more commercial than craft.

“We’re still classified as a small winery, at the larger end of small, but a nice size for us, given our tank capacity, the size of our press and all that,” says Engel. “We’re we to get bigger, we’d need to get a lot bigger, and we’re pretty happy at this size. It really let’s us keep our fingerprints all over everything, and stay craft or artisanale.”

There’s also the added responsibility of owning livestock, which includes letting it out to pasture each morning, rounding it up each night, and maintaining fences. Ontario has problems with coyotes and other predators. Lambs are extremely sensitive to cooper, so Johnson can’t use elemental cooper, an inexpensive organic spray used to protect grapes from mildew, until after the lambs have cleared an area.

“It’s an animal, so now you’ve introduced animal husbandry to what is normally horticulture,” says Johnson. “Once you have animals on site, they add another layer of complication. They need to be handled. They need to be protected and looked after.”

When you own a bird of prey, the demands are especially great.

There’s a 15-month apprenticeship program to become a licensed falconer in Ontario. There are stringent rules around housing and care, though the requirements differ from those common in the U.S. With only 200 licensed falconers in the province, says Engel, it’s easy to support one another and ensure all members are practicing falconry at the highest level.

“It’s kind of like owning a horse. There’s a real commitment there,” says Engel. “These birds need to be worked and hunted and flown. They’re not just meant to be put on your glove and shown to your friends. You do them a real disservice is you’re not getting them in the air and hunting them on a regular basis.”

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