Portugal Is Using Goats to Prepare for Wildfires, But There's Not Enough Shepherds

Goats used to clear brush in Portugal’s Algarve region, 2018.
Photo: Armando Franca (AP)

Portugal, which has been ravaged by wildfires of increasing severity and duration in the era of climate change, is turning back to the goat to clear underbrush in the hopes of limiting potential fuel sources for the blazes, the New York Times reported on Saturday.

One issue? A critical shortage of goatherds and shepherds in the ongoing pilot program dedicated to the initiative. Per the Times, after starting with a budget of “just a few thousand euros” last year, the Portuguese government program has managed to enlist nearly 11,000 goats—quite a few but still not enough:

So far, it has enlisted 40 to 50 goatherds and shepherds across the country, with a combined livestock of 10,800 goats that graze across about 6,700 acres, in selected areas that are more vulnerable to fire.

“When people abandon the countryside, they also leave the land extremely vulnerable to fire,” said João Cassinello, a regional official from Portugal’s Agriculture Ministry. “We have lost a way of life in which the forest was seen as valuable.” ... There is no doubt that poor government land management has worsened Portugal’s fires. The project is part of the country’s effort to recover. But challenges remain.

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The program is part of a broader effort by the Portuguese government to enhance preventative measures in the wake of multiple high-profile fires in recent years. Wildfires are common Portugal, but the ongoing infernos have reached an unprecedented scale, burning hundreds of thousands of acres annually. In 2017, two giant blazes in the middle of the country killed dozens of people and wiped out the town of Pedrogao Grande, with reports indicating that around half of the 60-plus confirmed deaths there were of residents fleeing in their cars. Portugal’s fire season has expanded from July to the end of September to June until October, according to Time.

While Portugal is now allocating “almost half of its rural firefighting budget on prevention measures,” up from 20 percent in years before, the goat-centered effort has remained modest, the Times wrote. The intent of the project is to have the herds create natural firewalls in remote areas, preventing or at least stalling fires from expansion. (Goats are voracious brush-eaters, with 10 goats capable of clearing an acre in a month.) But there’s a shortage of shepherds willing to do the work, which is part of the pattern of rural depopulation that has played a large part in regions of Portugal becoming particularly vulnerable to wildfires in the first place.

“It’s just become very hard to find people willing to do this hard work and live in such areas,” a board member for the forestry and conservation institute in charge of the project, Nuno Sequeira, told the Times. Shepherd Leonel Martins Pereira, a project participant with a herd of 150 Algarve goats, said that he estimated the extra earnings from the initiative at just $3.35 a day—much cheaper than operating machines to do the work of stripping areas of underbrush but not enough to justify moving his herd to at-risk areas that are sometimes less than ideal for farming by government request.

“The state has been wasting taxpayers’ money for years by mismanaging forests and is now saving some money, but without compensating the shepherds properly,” Pereira told the Times. “Being a shepherd is a vocation, but I don’t think this is worth the extra work and hassle.”

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“In the past we never used to have such massive fires like today,” Fernando Moura, whose herd of 370 goats was tasked with clearing nearly 125 acres of firewall over five years, told Agence France-Presse last year. “We used to have thousands of animals cleaning up by grazing and there were hundreds of herders like me. Now I am the last.”

[New York Times]

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Tom McKay

"... An upperclassman who had been researching terrorist groups online." - Washington Post