They Heard It Through the Grapevine! 1,800 Lucky Ducks Help Make Wine in South Africa
If your idea of happy hour is as much about adorable animals as it is about swishing Merlot, then do we have something ducking cool to show you.
Vergenoegd Löw Wine Estate in Stellenbosch, South Africa, is home to a team of specially skilled Indian Runner ducks who help keep the gorgeous vineyard outside of Cape Town free of pests. These unique birds also keep chemical usage to a minimum, which is good for the environment and wine connoisseurs alike.
PEOPLE spoke to David Badenhorst, Social Media Manager at Vergenoegd Löw Wine Estate, to learn more about these beloved ducks.
Vergenoegd's "Duck Parade" is a daily event where this enormous flock of approximately 1,800 Indian Runner ducks is released to roam among the rows of vines. You can watch a video of this quacktastic squad here.
The vineyard employs a resident farm and duck manager, Louis Horn, who cares for all the hatchlings in an on-site nursery.
Indian Runner ducks are a unique breed: They stand upright like penguins and instead of waddling, they run. Instead of flying and making nests, they lay their eggs as they walk. They hardly make any noise (only the females quack), and they spend their days snacking on snails and slugs, which is a huge help to the wine estate.
"Indian Runner Ducks are slender in build, fast, agile and can easily reach into vines and burrow between cover crops," says Badenhorst, explaining that due to their small wingspan, they cannot fly.
In Asia, these ducks have been used in rice paddies for centuries. There, they serve the same exact purpose: natural pest control. Vineyard pests include snails (and their eggs) and mealybugs; both are harmful to grape vines.
Badenhorst tells PEOPLE that Vergenoegd Löw Wine Estate started employing these ducks in the late 1980s. John Faure, one of the previous owners of the then-family-owned farm, had the idea of controlling pests in his vegetable patch in a natural way. Faure purchased three white and three black Indian Runners and began breeding them.
Vergenoegd Löw Wine Estate (purchased by Prof. Dr. Dr. Peter Löw of the Livia Group in 2015) has the largest population of Indian Runner ducks in Africa that serve as natural pest control in vineyards.
As one of the oldest wine producing farms in Stellenbosch, Vergenoegd is an iconic brand in South Africa.
"Our aim was to draw people back to the farm and this saw the introduction of our famous duck parade," says Badenhorst, "to create an awareness of our approach to sustainable farming practices at Vergenoegd Löw."
Of the estate's 1,800 Indian Runner ducks, the flock is divided into three groups: breeding, working and resting.
Badenhorst tells PEOPLE the working and resting groups rotate on a daily basis in order to keep an appropriate balance of work, play and rest.
Young and old alike, many people visit the farm to see the ducks. They contribute to a larger, behind-the-scenes story about the production and sale of the estate's wines.
"Indian Runners are interesting little characters," says Badenhorst. Although they may enjoy their jobs, the ducks don't necessarily share a mutual adoration for their human colleagues and visitors.
"Ducks generally avoid people," Badenhorst tells PEOPLE, though over time "they may become familiar with an individual who may have a certain whistle or consistent appearance."
A man named Hannes Pietersen is responsible for the upkeep of the duck breeding pens, including the incubation room. Pietersen checks for eggs on a daily basis, and he divides the fertile and infertile eggs.
Fertile eggs are placed in the incubators for about 28 days until they hatch. Meanwhile, ducklings are moved to warm boxes in order to slowly acclimate to weather conditions. "Indian Runners do not have great parental instincts," explains Badenhorst of the ducks' tendency to abandon eggs after they are dropped.
"Hannes is also part of a small team of duck herders who guide our ducks into and through the vineyards. This team also facilitates our famous duck parade on a daily basis," Badenhorst tells PEOPLE.
Vergenoegd Löw is known for its red wines. The estate grows a range of eight red cultivars and four white cultivars. The flagship wine is an Estate Blend, and it also offers a Port-style wine and MCC (bubbly).
The Runner Duck Range, named for the ducks, includes a red, rosé and white.
During harvest season when grapes are ripe and juicy, ducks are relieved of their pest-control duties and "sent on a holiday retreat to the dam," says Badenhorst.
At this point, all pests will be eradicated, but "if our ducks get a sniff and taste of grapes, snails won’t be our only problem!" says Badenhorst.
Vergenoegd Löw recently announced that the Vergenoegd Waterbird Habitat Project has become a reality. A statement on the vineyard's website reads, "We have always loved our ducks here at Vergenoegd, but we have decided to take it a step further and show people that we actually love ALL ducks!"
This conservation project’s goal is to show how private landowners can rehabilitate and change existing water bodies (like a regular irrigation dam) on their property to make it the perfect habitat for all kinds of indigenous waterbirds. When these ideal breeding grounds are developed for waterbirds, it attracts many different animals, including migrating birds and rare species, creating a positive impact on South Africa’s Western Cape.
To learn more about this unique vineyard and program, follow Vergenoegd Löw Wine Estate on Facebook.