Inside Africa

How duck 'soldiers' became this 300-year-old winemaker's secret weapon

John Lewis and Tom Page, CNNPublished 14th July 2022
(CNN) — South Africa's viniculture industry employs around 270,000 people, producing some of the world's most sought-after wines. But not all jobs are best left to humans. In some cases, it's better to get your ducks in a row -- and then put them to work.
Outside Cape Town on the banks of the Eerste river, Vergenoegd Löw The Wine Estate has repurposed a centuries-old practice by marshaling a battalion of ducks to keep its vineyard free of pests.
Inspired by ducks used to remove pests from rice paddies in Asia, the winery calls on the services of some 1,600 ducks as part of its effort to make wine production more sustainable.
"I call our ducks the soldiers of our vineyards," says managing director Corius Visser. "They will eat aphids, they will eat snails, they will eat small worms -- they keep (it) completely pest-free."
Ducks have patrolled Vergenoegd Löw The Wine Estate since the 1980s in a fowl feeding frenzy. No pest has been safe.
The species, the Indian runner duck, is flightless, with a peculiarly upright stance and highly developed sense of smell. The duck troops are cajoled on a 14-day circuit through the vineyard, eating and fertilizing the ground as they go.
The ducks' "annual leave" takes place during the harvest (they'd eat the grapes). During this time they forage on open farm pasture, swim in a nearby lake and undergo selective breeding, says Visser.
Duck eggs are consumed in the vineyard restaurant, but never the ducks themselves -- "that would be like eating a colleague," Gavin Moyes, the estate's tasting room manager, said in a 2020 interview.
"The world is moving away from more conventional farming to (being) a bit more organic," Visser explains. "For Vergenoegd, it's a big goal ... to have less influence on the Earth, the soil and the environment." Other sustainable initiatives include an extensive solar power plant and a 25-hectare wetland conservation area on the farm.
Vergenoegd Löw's ingenious pest control system has been deployed since the 1980s, but the fowl-based feeding frenzy could soon be spreading its wings.
The winery's Indian runner ducks patrol for pests in the vineyard.
The winery's Indian runner ducks patrol for pests in the vineyard.
Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images
As a pioneering winemaker with industry clout -- vines have being grown on the estate since the late 17th century -- Vergenoegd Löw is hoping to convince others to adopt its approach. Visser says the vineyard plans to sell 750 ducks to other vineyards and replenish numbers by breeding the birds. "We can be in a position where we say that we have (not just) the best runner ducks in South Africa, but also the world," Visser argues.
"I think the industry itself has the potential to engage more in experimental ways," he adds. That requires money, and increasing the price point of South African wines in the world market could help fund Vergenoegd Löw and other vineyards' green initiatives.
"If we can achieve that, we can then put back some of that (income) into our people, into our land, and become more sustainable," Visser says.
They'd be quackers not to.
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