By April Ingram
British Columbia touts the tag-line ‘Super, Natural British Columbia’ in their tourism branding and advertising, drawing visitors from all over the world to come and see Canadian wildlife in all its natural glory. Wilderness tourism is a primary driver of all tourism in BC, which in total represents $13.8 billion in revenue and 132,000 direct jobs.
The region is blessed with a rich variety of habitats and wildlife and distinct wine growing regions surrounded by stunning natural scenery. Some of the same factors of climate, soil, and geography that contribute to growing the wine industry also support a diversity of unique ecosystems and plant and animal populations.
As the human population and development expand, many wildlife species increasingly depend on private land and working landscapes such as vineyards for all or part of their life cycle. This necessity translates into interactions with some of our wild inhabitants on a near daily basis, and some encounters are more positive than others. Wildlife such as deer, bear, rodents and birds can develop a liking for grapes, or the vine itself, and cause significant crop losses.
There seems to be a shift in attitude from wildlife in the vineyard being regarded as pests that need to be managed, to a coexistence, leading to healthy and biologically diverse ecosystems. Maintaining this balance can provide many essential services to viticulturists and reduce the need for inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers, increase the productive capacity of the land, and reduce production risks.
Vineyards provide habitat, food sources and breeding grounds for a variety of birds, amphibians and reptiles and can serve as corridors for wildlife as they move between habitats. It is important to balance the need to protect your vines and grapes with the need to maintain healthy local ecosystems and support the species that depend on them.
Before veraison, our wild inhabitants usually find the grapes to be too tart, but things can become especially problematic in the lead up to harvest. As the grapes accumulate more sugar, they become especially tasty for birds, deer and bears, whose pre-winter appetites can be destructive to harvest yields. Even more so, as growers carefully monitor the temperatures until they dip down to the required -12 C, those grapes are one of the few food sources available at that time of year for birds and deer, so protecting them becomes a top priority.
Sound wildlife management requires using an integrated approach that should include prevention of conflict, identifying and learning about the species, monitoring them and the damage they cause, choosing appropriate control methods and reviewing the effectiveness of your actions. Most wildlife issues are managed through preventative measures. For example, habitat alteration and exclusion strategies can reduce the number of pests and problem wildlife frequenting your vineyard. These strategies may include using grow tubes around young vines to discourage chewing by rodents; selecting cover crops that are less desirable to wildlife, locating compost heaps away from forests and thickets; and clearing away brush piles that create habitat for birds.
The Okanagan Similkameen Conservation Alliance (OSCA) is a registered non-profit society run by a volunteer board of directors, with other dedicated volunteers and contract staff who plan and deliver over one hundred environmental events every year in communities in the region. They help farmers connect with organizations and resources to fund conservation projects. This kind of support is crucial because merely wanting to get along with wildlife is far easier than actually making a plan and doing the hard work. As Tanya Brouwers, the OSCA ECOstudies coordinator says, “it’s one thing to put up a bat box, but it’s quite another to have to fence off a wetland, a long stretch of creek or to replant these areas if they’ve been damaged. Projects like these can be very costly to a farmer.”
Know Your Neighbors
Getting to know your animal neighbors is vital. Invasive species and native birds may both be unwanted in the vineyard, but strategies for controlling these pests differ. The Migratory Birds Convention Act and the Species at Risk Act protect some birds (e.g., bluebirds and Lewis’s Woodpecker) and these protections require that management strategies fit within the law.
Starlings, robins, house finches and other birds feed on grapes. Starlings, however, cause the most damage. Ensure that starlings are not able to nest in farm structures, or destroy their nests before the young fledge. Creating nest traps can be useful in controlling starlings, but care should be taken not to trap other cavity-nesting birds (e.g., bluebirds, flickers). It is illegal to kill or harass most native birds and their nests in Canada as detailed in the Migratory Birds Convention Act and the BC Wildlife Act. However, the European Starling is a non-native bird for which there is an aggressive campaign of extermination and netting to prevent fruit loss.
Audible bird scare devices can be a nuisance to the vineyard’s human neighbors; therefore the provincial government’s Ministry of Agriculture has developed strict guidelines for the use of these devices.
Rodents can damage young vines by gnawing on grape shoots, roots and crowns. While the damage they cause in vineyards is usually minor, they also attract animals such as badgers, snakes and coyotes, which can become problem wildlife. Snakes are not considered an agricultural pest but can become a nuisance or a danger to vineyard workers. In fact, snakes are beneficial to crops because they are significant predators of rodents. Provincial and federal laws make it an offense to harass or kill snakes.
Deer and elk can severely damage vines. They don’t just eat buds, spurs, shoots, fruit and leaves, they scratch their itches, and rub their antlers against the plant, breaking branches and removing bark in the process.
When dealing with deer and elk, sScare devices like cracker or whistler shells, propane exploders, and electronic Av-Alarm or Phoenix Wailer Systems are an option, but may also become a problem for neighbors. Some growers allow hunters (especially bow hunters) to access their land during hunting seasons, where this is permissible. Some opt to plant “lure crops,” crops less desirable to wildlife.
God’s Mountain Estates placed their vineyard deer fence well inside their property boundaries, leaving natural habitat outside the fence but within their acreage. This fencing placement allows wildlife to travel along all four sides of the vineyard to get to their water sources and up to the cliffs and forest for shelter, but keeps them from snacking on the grape harvest along the way.
Bears can be a nuisance in some vineyards and can pose a threat to workers, becoming a severe problem as the harvest approaches. In years when native berry hosts have low production, vineyards have become a favorite target of bears in the fall. Depending on the intensity of bear attack, vineyard managers have tried many different methods to keep bears out, such as nightly patrols to scare off bears with bird flares and bangers, rubber bullets or other scare tactics. Managers must weigh this approach against staff costs and safety. The only long-term, proven and effective method for keeping bears out of vineyards is properly constructed electric fencing.
John Skinner of Painted Rock described a worrying “infestation” of black bears in the vineyard six years ago that led to a loss of 11 tons of grapes in just three weeks. “In September of 2010, we noticed bear scat and evidence that they were eating our grapes overnight. As time went on, more bears arrived, having no problem climbing our deer fence. Losing fruit at night is one thing, but the bears started showing up during the day when our staff were busy at work among the vines,” Skinner told Wine Spectator in 2016. “We had to solve the problem with a higher electrified fence, as well as an electric mat at the front gate.”
Waterside Vineyard & Winery in Enderby, BC considers their resident bear and his appetite more of a barometer for harvest and part of the “nature tax.” On their website, they describe him as, “a great bear that comes down from the mountains, and wanders into the vineyard. He seeks the sweetness and comfort of this place where he began, a place where he, too, grew and thrived, and returns to when the grapes are perfect in their ripening for magnificent flavors of wine. He is our telltale of harvest time.” Jennifer Marcotte of Waterside shares that this season she has not yet caught a photo of their bear, but, “just evidence, and missing grapes!”
To mediate some of the damage caused by wildlife to farmers in the province, the government created the Agriculture Wildlife Program that provides compensation for losses to harvests due to specific wildlife (bison, bear, cranes, deer, elk, moose, mountain sheep, and waterfowl). Unfortunately, this program does not extend to grape growers, only to lost forage crops.
Kelowna’s Tantalus Vineyards has numerous initiatives to preserve sustainability and peaceful coexistence with local wildlife. According to their website, they are a naturally-farmed vineyard—hand tended, no use of herbicides and the vineyard ecosystem biodiversity encouraged through the preservation of a 10-acre natural, dry land forest in its center. Kelowna also developed a partnership with Okanagan Similkameen Wildlife Habitat Stewardship to identify and enhance wildlife diversity. They have specially constructed nesting boxes to encourage populations of beneficial bird species like the Western Bluebird and sparrows, as well as newly installed bat nesting boxes to boost their populations on site. This is part of ongoing work with the Okanagan Similkameen Stewardship Society, working toward long-term solutions that allow people, vineyards and wildlife to coexist.