Goat brigades help bat­tle deadly wild­fires

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - WORLD -

LORIGA, Por­tu­gal — Fer­nando Moura and his herd may not look like he­roes, but the Por­tuguese farmer and his 370 goats are the lat­est re­cruits in the coun­try’s bat­tle against sum­mer for­est fires.

Hop­ing to con­tain wild­fires that threaten its moun­tains each year, Por­tu­gal’s govern­ment has hired goats to munch through un­der­growth and cre­ate nat­u­ral, cost-ef­fec­tive fire bar­ri­ers.

Soar­ing tem­per­a­tures of­ten spark blazes across Por­tu­gal’s moun­tain ranges, forc­ing au­thor­i­ties to dis­patch hun­dreds of fire­fight­ers, soldiers and wa­ter-dump­ing air­craft.

More than 100 peo­ple were killed in the coun­try’s wild­fires last year, prompt­ing crit­i­cism from fire­fight­ers over a lack of govern­ment co­or­di­na­tion.

Moura’s four-legged brigade are part of a pilot project, started ear­lier this year, to clear com­bustible scrub­land from some of Por­tu­gal’s ma­jor moun­tain ranges.

Au­thor­i­ties hope the fire­fight­ing goats will help stop blazes spread­ing from one for­est to an­other and bet­ter con­tain any fires.

“In the past we never used to have such mas­sive fires like to­day. We used to have thou­sands of an­i­mals clean­ing up by graz­ing and there were hun­dreds of herders like me,” Moura said.

“Now I am al­most the last.” For the next five years, Moura and his goats have one mis­sion — to roam across the slopes of the cen­tral Serra da Estrela range and clear around 50 hectares of scrub­land to cre­ate the nat­u­ral fire­walls.

Around 40 goat herders are tak­ing part across the coun­try in the ini­tia­tive, which is ex­pected to show re­sults quickly although of­fi­cials say a full eval­u­a­tion of its ef­fi­ciency will only come at the end of its five year-run.

Bet­ter able to ac­cess re­mote, rocky ar­eas, goats may be more ef­fec­tive than men in bull­doz­ers on the moun­tain slopes.

“It’s the most nat­u­ral and cost-ef­fec­tive method,” said An­to­nio Borges, head of Por­tu­gal’s In­sti­tute for Na­ture Con­ser­va­tion and Forests, or ICNF.

At dawn, ev­ery day of the year, Moura looks out on the slopes and ridges of the Serra da Estrela na­tional park, one of the high­est peaks on the Por­tuguese main­land.

Thick walk­ing stick in hand, the 49-year-old herder ap­pears as quick and sure in step as his herd as he ca­joles the an­i­mals with whis­tles per­fected over a life­time on the moun­tain­side.

For his work, Moura gets paid 125 eu­ros ($144) for each hectare cleared in the first year, and 25 eu­ros per hectare for each of the fol­low­ing four years. A small sup­ple­ment comes from goat milk cheese and meat.

Af­ter last year’s fa­tal wild­fires, this sum­mer was calmer, with sig­nif­i­cantly fewer fires started, burned sur­faces re­duced by 60 per­cent from the av­er­age of the last 10 years.

Still, in Au­gust, wild­fires burned the Al­garve re­gion, threat­en­ing the tourist des­ti­na­tion. “Por­tu­gal re­mains very vul­ner­a­ble,” said Ti­ago Oliveira, head of a team of ex­perts charged by the govern­ment with re­form­ing fire preven­tion strate­gies.

“New ini­tia­tives for for­est man­age­ment will take decades to pro­duce re­sults. It’s a long-term task.”

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