Inter-row vegetation in vineyards can help tackle soil erosion without sacrificing the quality of grapes. Associate Editor, Peter Manning (Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Centre) discusses the recent Review by Winter et al., Effects of vegetation management intensity on biodiversity and ecosystem services in vineyards: A meta‐analysis

Wine by Peter Manning

When we think of intensive agriculture most of us conjure images of factory farmed chickens or wheat fields spayed with litres of agrochemicals. Few of us, I expect, would think of vineyards, whose image is far more associated with rural idyll and lazy days in the sun. Such perceptions may not reflect the reality of some grape farming; many vineyards are managed intensively, and the inter-row weeds within them are controlled by tilling, mulching and herbicide application. However,  people are questioning the necessity of this vegetation removal and, in the last decade, increasing numbers of the world’s wine growers have promoted vegetation cover in an attempt to combat soil erosion and other problems associated with the bare earth.

What is the impact of these management changes on the biodiversity of these vineyards and the ecosystem services it supports? A recent paper by Winter et al. in Journal of Applied Ecology addresses these questions by performing a global level study that produced general answers.

The approach taken was one of meta-analysis. A comprehensive search of the relevant scientific literature was conducted and all studies in which the effect of vineyard vegetation management on biodiversity and ecosystem services was reported were selected. The difference between vineyards undergoing conventional management, in which with inter-row vegetation is removed, and those with inter-row vegetation was then calculated. As the literature on this topic was quite extensive (74 comparable studies were found) it was possible to do this comparison for a wide range of biodiversity variables and ecosystem services including carbon storage, nutrient cycling, pest control and soil erosion.

Across all studies the picture was fairly consistent – inter-row vegetation boosted an assortment of ecosystem services including carbon storage and pest control, but especially those related to lower soil erosion. Biodiversity also benefitted greatly from inter-row vegetation with average increases of more than 50% across the studied groups. What’s more, these benefits came with little or no cost to the overall quality and quantity of grape production, although there was variation here suggesting that there may be some places where negative impacts of inter-row vegetation are seen, e.g. in drier climates. Such situations clearly need to be identified.

Because the study was a meta-analysis based on many previous studies we can be fairly confident in these conclusions, and hopefully this knowledge can be used to encourage the retention or planting of inter-row vegetation across the world’s vineyards. This encouragement could be done via agri-environment schemes that provide payments to encourage inter-row vegetation. However, such payments might not be necessary if this is a win-win in which the vineyard supports more wildlife and production is more sustainable, without any great loss of yield. Here, assuming that such vegetation does not come at a hidden cost, it is communication of the benefits to farmers that is key.

The full Open Access Review, Effects of vegetation management intensity on biodiversity and ecosystem services in vineyards: A meta‐analysis in Journal of Applied Ecology.