Portugal’s wildfire season gets worse each year. This July, a massive team of 800 firefighters, 245 vehicles including bulldozers, and 13 planes and helicopters fought a blaze in the country’s heavily forested and mountainous Castelo Branco region. The Portuguese government is now enlisting an unusual team—or herd, rather—to prevent the burns: goats.
As Raphael Minder reports for the New York Times, the populations of rural towns have thinned out—a trend consistent with other parts of Europe as well. Such towns were once made up of dozens of shepherds and goatherds with numerous flocks feeding on the underbrush of the rugged landscape. As the population ages and moves away, the land—no longer tended by livestock roaming the hills—turns into overgrown thickets.
Simultaneously, temperatures have continued to rise globally as a symptom of climate change. July, for instance, was the hottest month in recorded history. When Europe experiences heat waves, Portugal is especially hit hard. The Times’ Minder reports that Europe lost three million acres of land to forest fires last year, but of all southern European countries, Portugal has lost the most land to fires since the beginning of this decade.
In the 20th century, the country’s fire season ran from July to September; it now begins in June and continues through October, reports Daniel Silva at Agence France-Presse. "Weather conditions and the characteristics of our forests make large-scale fires inevitable," Portugal's Interior Minister Eduardo Cabrita told reporters following the Castelo Branco fires in July.
Because of this the Portuguese government now allocates 50 percent of its firefighting budget to prevention measures, up from 20 percent in 2017. A very small slice of the budget includes a program that incentivizes shepherds to keep their herds grazing in rural areas.
Overgrown hillsides are prime fuel for forest fires. One bushy plant in particular, the strawberry tree, is covered in waxy leaves that catch fire easily, reports Minder. Locals will turn the plant into aguardente de medronhos, a fruit brandy. Goats, on the other hand, ravenously devour the leaves and don’t mind climbing to get them.
Returning goats to the countryside is a logical solution to help especially remote villages minimize the burns. The pilot program, costing just a few thousand euros, was developed by the country’s forest service. So far, about 40 to 50 shepherd and goatherds are signed up, along with nearly 11,000 goats, Minder reports. That’s enough to cover about 6,000 acres, but plenty more is needed—if they can get funding. One shepherd estimates the stipend he gets from participation in the program only amounts to about three extra euros a day.
Forestry officials, like Nuno Sequeira, would argue that a lack of shepherds available to do the job, not cost. “It’s just become very hard to find people willing to do this hard work and live in such areas,” Sequeira tells the Times.
The program isn’t a perfect system by any means. Some of the forest officials’ guidances run against the shepherds’ logic. For example, brush near roads are the most critical areas in need of clearing, but the vegetation that grows near roads isn’t always the best source of nutrition for the goats. There’s still time to smooth out the bumps, however.
“We’re pleased so far, but the goal is to learn before doing this on a larger scale,” Sequeira tells the Times. “We are trying to change a whole system to prevent forest fires, and that takes time.”