At Tablas Creek winery in Paso Robles, California, 200 black-faced Dorper sheep munch weeds among rows of vines. Along the way, they fertilise the soil, while donkeys and 200-pound (90kg) Spanish mastiffs ward off coyotes and mountain lions. Pairs of owls zoom from vineyard boxes to eliminate more than 500 vine-root-eating gophers a year. Chickens scratch the earth, scarfing up unwelcome bugs. A couple of decades ago, this vineyard menagerie would have been highly unusual. Now the commitment to organic and biodynamic viticulture has pushed top wineries across the globe to look to nature for alternatives to chemicals. Furry, feathered, scaly, and four-legged animals (even bats) have become essential winery employees, contributing to vineyards’ overall health by replacing toxic pesticides and herbicides. Tablas Creek goes even further. It’s the first winery in the world to obtain regenerative organic certification, a new international farming standard intended to combat climate change. Not every vineyard animal experiment works out. New Zealand’s Yealands estate trialled giant guinea pigs as weed eaters. Alas, they became a favourite food for falcons and hawks. But many of the creatures prized in vineyards right now might surprise you. Here are nine of them. Winemaking sisters in Thailand face tight restrictions on alcohol sales 1. Armadillos Armour-shelled armadillos use their long, sticky tongues to feast on the aggressive ants that damage vines and leaves at Bodega Chacra, a boutique pinot noir winery in Patagonia, on the edge of Argentina’s central desert. Encouraging them means owner Piero Incisa della Rocchetta does not have to put out poisonous ant traps. “One day, the vineyard manager found an inebriated armadillo on top of discarded fermenting grape skins and was anxious to eat it,” says Incisa. “But I banned that.” 2. Norwegian fiord horses Horse power for tilling vineyard soil is now common, especially in France’s Loire Valley and Bordeaux. You’ll find the most unusual horse breed at Odfjell winery in Maipo Valley, Chile, whose founder is Norwegian shipping magnate Dan Odfjell. He transported fiord horses from western Norway via Lufthansa, even before he started planting vines. One of the world’s oldest breeds, they are small, tough, and above all, sure-footed – ideal for spring ploughing and transporting grapes during harvest, even from steep mountain vineyards. Wines from Thailand and India, where vineyards thrive despite tradition 3. Kunekune pigs Sweet-tempered, hairy kunekune porkers (pronounced coonee coonee), a heritage breed from New Zealand, make exotic pets and are beloved by chefs. They’re also good vineyard weed mowers, which is why the owners of Oregon’s Balanced Earth Farm send them out in rotation with Scottish highland cattle and sheep. Kunekunes do not tear up the turf, as other pigs do, and they nicely complete the eco-circle by ending up as the main course at family dinners. 4. Snakes Bordeaux’s Chateau Coutet in St. Emilion is experimenting with three varieties of non-venomous serpents. Co-owner Adrien David-Beaulieu says they restrain the population of destructive rodents that eat succulent vine roots and dig underground tunnels that dry out vineyard soil. 5. Indian Runner ducks Every morning at precisely 10.30am, a massive squad of ducks marches off to the vineyards at Vergenoegd Low wine estate in the Stellenbosch region of South Africa. They’re foraging for white dune snails, an invasive species that eats buds on the grapevines in spring. Slim Indian runner ducks can slide between vines, and their long necks let them reach snails high up on vine trunks. 6. Mules Come spring in Bordeaux, you’ll see Poitevin mules among the oldest vines at Domaine de Chevalier. “We can’t use tractors, because old vines aren’t in straight rows,” explains Olivier Bernard, whose family owns the estate. “With mules, we can adapt the work to each individual vine and avoid damaging the roots and shoots.” Like horses, mules do not compact the soil, which allows more microbes to flourish in the earth, adding character and freshness to the wines. Mules are less nervous than horses and have more strength and endurance. 7. Falcons Hungry birds, especially aggressive starlings, have a voracious appetite for sugar-rich ripe grapes. They peck holes in individual berries, which allows bacteria and mould to destroy them, and they nosh on whole grapes, too. Soaring falcons scare them off, which is why such Napa wineries as Bouchaine Vineyards hire falcon-whisperer Rebecca Rosen during the harvest season. On sighting her peregrine falcons (one of them named Rambo), birds head for the trees. OPTIONAL Rambo splits the flocks into smaller groups, that can do less damage. A bonus: Falcons cost much less than draping nets over the vines. In New Zealand, the fierce endangered native Karearea falcon helps Felton Road winery in Central Otago control rabbits, the region’s top pest, swooping down at speeds of up to 200km an hour. 8. Sheep The most common eco-lawnmowers are easy to control: sheep can be kept busy munching weeds and keeping vines tidy in vineyards from California to England and beyond. In New Zealand, Two Paddocks winery in Central Otago, owned by actor Sam Neill, maintains about 25. Some are named after celebrities so he will not be tempted to eat them. Yealands winery in Marlborough, New Zealand, also has a flock of cute, woolly Baby Doll sheep, only 17 inches to 24 inches tall, which is too short to reach up and snack on grapes. 9. Chickens In Chile, at Emiliana Vineyards, chickens are essential in doing away with the vine weevil, which eats vine roots and shoots. At Jonata winery in Santa Barbara County, California, mobile chicken coops regularly roll from plot to plot in the 84-acre vineyard, spilling out 60-odd birds that eat insects and enrich the soil with nitrogen from their droppings. (The owner, sports billionaire Stan Kroenke, also owns Napa’s Screaming Eagle.) Winemaker Matt Dees’ animal-rich farming approach integrates chickens, turkeys, Catalina goats, pigs, and sheep in the winery’s workings. “Almost all could be on the winery payroll,” he laughs.