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Portugal turns to goats as low-cost firefighters

Published on 19/08/2019

Portugal has scrambled to find solutions to wildfires that have ravaged the country in recent years. It has tested various high-tech tools and grappled with long-term policy changes to improve land management that could prevent them. But an unforeseen possible solution is the goat.

Part of Portugal’s problem is that inland villages have decreased radically in their population sizes. The absence of shepherds, goatherds and farmers has left forest lands overgrown, allowing fires to spread and burn faster.

A simple, low-cost solution, Portuguese officials now hope, may lie with the humble goat, which feeds on the underbrush that fuels fires.

Leonel Martins Pereira, 49, is his village’s last shepherd. Increasingly, he may also be Portugal’s first line of defense against wildfires. He is now part of a new programme started by the Government intended to help shepherds in an arduous and isolated job that may prove essential to Portugal’s ability to adapt to a future defined by climate change.

His 150 Algarve goats feed off all the local plants, including the strawberry tree, which has leaves that have a sticky protective film that catches fire easily. But for the goats it is food worth scaling the mountainsides for.

The goat project was started by the Government’s forestry institute last year with a budget of just a few thousand euros.

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 increased the Portuguese countryside’s risk of wildfires, and this project is part of the country’s effort to recover from this. But challenges remain.

Nuno Sequeira, a board member for the forestry and nature conservation institute that runs the project, said the difficulty was not funding but finding enough shepherds willing to partake.

“It’s just become very hard to find people willing to do this hard work and live in such areas,” he said.

But the tourists congregate at the coasts. They rarely make their way to inland villages like the ones the programme targets, where the heat and winds sweep across the hills in the summer like air from a blow dryer.

Shepherds like Mr. Martins Pereira emphasize that what they do is more than just a job. Like many other villagers, he left Portugal as a young man for a few years to work in France, but eventually returned to a family village lifestyle that he was missing.

To beat the heat in the summer months when the Algarve is most prone to fires, Mr. Martins Pereira sets off for the hills at dawn and returns late at night.

“Living and working with animals is a 24-hour job,” Mr. Martins Pereira said.

By his own calculations, the government programme gives him an extra three euros, per day, on top of what he can earn from selling his animals and their products, compared with the €30 per hour it would cost to operate a tractor to clear the land.

That is not enough, he said, adding that he was unlikely to sign up again unless the pay increased and forestry engineers gave him more leeway to decide where his goats should graze. Forestry inspectors, he claimed, wanted him to focus on clearing roadside areas, which must be protected from fire but where there is not always the best vegetation to feed his goats.

“The state has been wasting taxpayers’ money for years by mismanaging forests and is now saving some money, but without compensating the shepherds properly,” he said.

“Being a shepherd is a vocation, but I don’t think this is worth the extra work and hassle,” he concluded.