Birds are a huge problem for wine producers – but especially the sweet winemakers of Illmitz and Appleton, in Austria’s Burgenland. Their vineyards are east of Lake Neusiedl – a paradise for birdwatchers as the reed beds around the 320sq km lake are home to nearly 300 bird species. The region is also a stepping-stone for migrating birds from Northern Europe and Africa. Helmut Lang, the IWC Sweet Winemaker of the Year, uses more than 70km of birds netting to protect his grapes. “It’s necessary,” he tells Canopy.
He and several other producers have also clubbed together to employ rangers from veraison until the nets are on the vines. The rangers ride around on quad bikes, firing starting pistols whenever they spot starlings in the vineyards. Others use gas cannons and fake falcons to scare the birds.
Helmut’s brother Alois, who works for the Nationalpark, dismisses such methods. “I call this entertainment for starlings,” he says.
So what is the most effective method for protecting grapes from birds? International viticulture and management consultant James Wright looks at recent research into this massive problem.
Birds in vineyard resize
Birds are a problem in terms of yield loss but also from quality issues arising from berry damage and the fungi and bacteria that then move in.
But which birds are we talking about? As the following study from a commercial vineyard in California points out, the insectivores are beneficial as they help manage pest insect populations and reduce the need for insecticides.
Key findings: The establishment of nesting boxes in the trial vineyard led to a reduction in insect pest numbers. An insecticide spray was required in the control block but not in the trial block, the boxes were inhabited by Western Bluebirds (Sialia Mexicana) which are primarily insectivores during summer and herbivores in winter and not by the classic fruit eaters (frugivores) we want to keep out of the vineyard prior to harvest, ie. common starlings.
There are now many products on the market for bird control in vineyards including a wide range of netting, gas guns, ultrasonic alarms and distress callers, predatory bird replicas, reflective tape, eye-spot balloons, flashlights, repellents (ie. Methyl Anthranilate) and even plastic owls with rotating heads.
‘Netting remains the most effective means of reducing bird damage’
Netting remains the most effective means of reducing bird damage. But which color?
Here is a study from Italy on the effects of various net colors on table grapes.
Key findings: Effects on vines and grape composition varied depending on net color, nets reduced wind speed by up to 85% and photosynthesis by up to 25%, nets could perform multiple beneficial functions, ie. protection against birds and reduction of the effects of climate change.
Studies on the effects of different colored nets vary somewhat in terms of impact on yield and berry composition, however as a generalization white and pearl nets either have no effect on ripening rate or advance ripening, reduce anthocyanins, titratable acidity and flavonols. Black or red nets can delay ripening, increase anthocyanins, titratable acidity, and flavonols. Partial Solar Radiation Exclusion with Color Shade Nets Reduces the Degradation of Organic Acids and Flavonoids of Grape Berry (Vitis vinifera L.)
However, the cost of nets, logistical challenges, restriction on the capacity to apply late-season sprays, and birds becoming trapped in the nets provides plenty of motivation to investigate alternatives.
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