With picking for the 2013 vintage in Central Otago underway, the most alluring prospect for any pest bird such as Starlings, Sparrows and Indian Blackbirds is a nice ripe, juicy-sweet grape. These nuisance birds peck holes in grapes to drink the juice which exposes the grapes to fungal infection and subsequently the whole bunch is damaged.
It is a perpetual problem for vignerons and a highly expensive one, both in loss if crop and requiring very costly netting or futile acoustic sound deterrents, both of which these clever scavenging Aves quickly learn to ignore.
There is however, a more natural approach, indeed almost ridiculously logical, a bird of prey to scare others away. Except, that as the smarter species, these days we invariably ignore the inherent rhythms of nature and the complexities of ecosystems and how they maintain an extraordinary delicate balance—to life. Actually, we seemed to have perfected ignoring all such wisdom and have become experts in destroying ecosystems.
Not so at Felton Road, Bannockburn, where proprietor and biodynamic eco-system champion, Nigel Greening, is lending his support to the ‘Falcon for Grapes Programme’. Greening, somewhat the Dalai Lama of the New Zealand wine industry is an “Ocean of Wisdom” and always full of inspirational and pragmatic enlightenment.
This bird of prey however is no ordinary raptor; the New Zealand Falcon or Kārearea is the only endemic bird of prey in New Zealand. Not to be confused with the more common Australasian Swamp Harrier, the Kārearea is believed to be the fasted bird of prey in the world catching other birds on the wing and seldom eats carrion; dead or decaying meat that vultures, hawks and eagles survive on.
Actually, digressing for a moment, New Zealand used to have another endemic bird of prey, indeed the largest true raptor known to man, a massive eagle even larger than existing vultures called Haast’s Eagle. It is now extinct, thanks to the smarter species, as its habitat was largely destroyed and its main prey, the gigantic Moa, a flightless bird reaching up to 12ft in height also died out in the 1400s due to over-hunting by the Māori.
The ingenious Falcon for Grapes Programme is in fact the work of Dr Nick Fox, a director of International Wildlife Consultants UK, who studied the plight of the New Zealand Falcon back in the 1970s. Upon returning to New Zealand some 30 years later he was shocked to discover the massive decline of the Kārearea in the Wairau Plains, Marlborough. Today, there only 4000 of these most majestic birds thought to be alive in the wild.
The synergies of the Marlborough grape growing region with almost 75% of New Zealand’s wine coming from here and the Kārearea was not lost on Dr Fox, with the realisation a steady food source for a bird of prey and a winegrower looking for a more cost effective means to scare away the birds had the makings of an ideal symbiotic relationship.
Thus, the Falcon for Grapes Programme was conceived by Dr Fox and with the support of the Department of Conservation and partly funded by the Ministry of Forestry and Agriculture, a breeding programme was initiated in 2005 and now overseen by General Manager, Colin Wynn, one of New Zealand’s leading sea and landscape artists.
Enthusiasm for the project has grown with the success of breeding the birds in Marlborough, literally nesting in barrels in the vineyards, defying the sceptics that were insistent that these birds of prey would not adapt to humans in close proximity.
What is most interesting, Wynn has observed that the vineyard-bred birds are attracting wild Kārearea from the high country and forming long-term relationships, crucial to the sustainability of the species evolving in numbers in their natural habitat.
These observations have been inspirational in developing a ‘relocation programme’ which is now being extended to other parts of the South Island of New Zealand and hence the arrival of the Kārearea Falcon at Felton Road, or “Kaz” as it has been affectionately named.
As it turned out, my visit to Felton Road after the New Zealand Pinot Noir Celebration 2013 was perfectly timed for the exciting event; a very special moment to witness the Falconer releasing Kaz and watch it sweeping around the vineyard and surrounds surveying its new territory, swooping down like a jetfighter, or raptor as it were, with all below in awe of its speed and power with pesky starlings darting for cover.
Kaz will be trained to take up residence in the vineyard and assume his natural duty of scaring birds away from eating the grapes during the ripening season and occasionally eating some of them. Kaz has also been assigned extra duties, combating the relentless rabbit problem, which she seems to have taken to with extreme prejudice.
Whilst we were there, a sacrificial rabbit was nailed to a perch in the middle of the vineyard encouraging Kaz to return here and to make her home. This would be repeated over the next few days with desirable birds and rodents to instil a territorial domain.
Greening reports that Kaz has indeed made herself at home and that they see her regularly so all is going to plan. And the bigger plan at Felton Road is to be truly self sufficient and there’s not much that comes through their front gate other than, glass wine bottles, oak barrels and people.
Greening beams with satisfaction emphasizing that they grow fresh produce with a vineyard vegetable garden and have their own goat herd that grazes on the wild, thorny Scottish Rosehip bushes and tussocks in the hills above the vineyard.
It is an incredible property; a true biodynamic entity self-sufficient in its own dynamic eco-system and microbial biodiversity with all the manure, composts, mulch, organic treatments and teas coming from the property and a lot of toil from Gary King, Felton Road’s viticulturist. www.feltonroad.com
I took a whole bunch of pictures of Kaz on that day, scroll below.
Further reading on Falcon for Grapes Programme:
Kaz update – Nigel Greening reports, “I was driving down the vineyard yesterday when Kaz shot over the top of us like a missile, headed out over Mount Difficulty’s Target Gully vines, grabbed a bird out of the air and settled down for lunch.”