Key Points:

It's the crack of dawn in a Marlborough vineyard and I'm watching Dudley devour his breakfast. I personally would have preferred a piece of toast or a bacon buttie, but Dudley seems quite happy with his own fast food, a duo of defrosted chicks served at speed from the window of a ute.

It's usually winemakers or viticulturalists that accompany me through the vineyard, but it's birds rather than grapes that interest Dudley most.

He's one of the native New Zealand falcons being enticed into making their homes in Marlborough's vineyards as part of the Falcons for Grapes project.

In recent years numbers of this native species have been plummeting in Marlborough, while damage from smaller birds in the region's vineyards has been soaring, resulting in losses to the wine industry estimated at $70 million a year.

This was noted by British raptor researcher and New Zealand falcon expert Dr Nick Fox.

Fox hatched a plan to find the falcons a safe habitat in the vineyards where they would earn their keep by scaring off the smaller fry who like nothing better to gorge themselves on grapes destined for greater things than ending up in a bird's belly.

It was hoped this would also provide the additional bonus of saving some of hedgerows and trees - home to the pest bird population - that were being felled to deal with the problem.

Since it started in 2005, the five-year Falcons for Grapes pilot scheme has introduced 19 falcons into the area, monitored through transmitters attached to the birds, with another wild falcon joining the scheme of its own volition.

The falcons have started breeding, encouraged to make their homes in special nest barrels - not wine barrels, but old mussel floats strung up in trees - that provide protection from the predators that have been their downfall.

Not without some setbacks, the project has been hit by objections from local pigeon fanciers and the loss of some of the project's birds, electrocuted on the region's unprotected power poles.

As project manager Colin Wynn drives me around the various sites, he points out the spot where a tree housing one of the nesting barrels once stood, felled without warning to make way for yet another vineyard development.

However, the wineries have largely been co-operative in the scheme - partly funded by New Zealand Winegrowers - with several actively involved through helping to feed the falcons.

"It's too early to quantify the benefit of falcons statistically," says Lincoln University's Dr Valerie Saxton, who has been monitoring bird damage in the vineyards, "but anecdotally we have recorded reduced damage in the falcon vineyards."

Says Fox: "It's win-win for both falcons and for wine."

He hopes New Zealand Winegrowers and other interested parties will establish a trust to raise the money required to keep to project running when funds run out this year.

At a time when the New Zealand wine industry has been experiencing both huge success and consequent expansion, it's seemed to some that it's been reaping more from the environment than it's been putting back.

A project like Falcons for Grapes is a heartening example of a symbiotic relationship between the industry and nature that proves there are ways both can prosper together.


An avian assortment

Some bird-associated wines I've recently rated.

Falcon-friendly sauvignon
Lake Chalice Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2007 $19.90

Lake Chalice is one Marlborough winery with an affinity with the region's raptors, a logo inspired by the New Zealand falcon, and sponsoring the Wingspan Birds of Prey Trust. Its 2007 sauvignon is fresh, citrusy, midweight wine, with tropical guava fruit laced with Mediterranean herbs.
From Glengarry and good wine stores.
Raptor-ous riesling
Peregrine Rastasburn Central Otago Riesling 2006 $22

Another falcon-inspired label and Wingspan Trust sponsor is Peregrine, whose winery design also mimics one of these birds in flight. This intense medium riesling has zesty line of lemon and grapefruit peel, fleshed out by subtle peachy fruit and hints of river stone and spice.
From Caro's, Fine Wine Delivery Company, Wine Vault, Glengarry.
Italianate high flyer
Heron's Flight Matakana Sangiovese 2005 $50

A concentrated and characterful wine made from Tuscany's leading grape, this Matakana expression is earthy, truffly and cedary, with grip and freshness beneath brooding dark berry fruit. It's not cheap, but a worthwhile investment for those wanting to savour one of New Zealand's best sangioveses so far. If you visit Heron's Flight's cellar door and mention this column, you can taste it for free.
From NZ Winemakers Centre, Glengarry Newmarket, Caro's.