Scorched Portugal Turns to the Goat as a Low-Cost Firefighter

Leonel Martins Pereira, a shepherd in Vermelhos, Portugal, with the goats he tends at the end of a long day.

In nature, different animals eat different kinds of plants and there are specific species for every such “ecological niche”. Where native animals have gone missing, domestic goats can be used to replace animals that once ate brush and weeds, just as cattle replace herds of nomadic grazers like bison. Goats can control weeds like Leafy Spurge, and brush, thereby improving grass and reducing fire hazards. Obviously, improving fire-prone, brush-choked Western forests – where moose, elk and bear are declining along with their habitat – benefits wildlife.


In the US, goats are often used by municipalities to manage brush and weeds in areas that are prone to fire and ecologically sensitive. Unlike Portugal, the US has no culture of goat herding so in the US goats are expensive. But for many reasons, they are better than Roundup and machinery for treating weeds and brush.


NOTE: this article was originally published to NY Times on August 17, 2019. It was written by Raphael Minder.

VERMELHOS, Portugal — Portugal has scrambled to find solutions to wildfires that have ravaged the country in recent years. It has tested high-tech tools like drones and used satellites and aircraft to fight the fires. It has grappled with long-term policy changes to improve land management that could prevent them.

And then there is the goat.

Part of Portugal’s problem, as in other southern European countries, is that inland villages have shed their populations. The absence of shepherds, goatherds and farmers has left forest lands overgrown, allowing fires to spread and burn faster. Steep slopes are out of reach for a tractor and are very costly to tend by hand, difficult in any case for an aging population.

A simple, low-cost solution, Portuguese officials now hope, may lie with the humble goat, which feeds on the underbrush that fuels fires, if only enough goatherds and shepherds can be found and supported in a way of life that is disappearing.

Leonel Martins Pereira, 49, is his village’s last. Increasingly, he may also be Portugal’s first line of defense against wildfires.

He is now part of a pilot program started by the Portuguese government intended to help shepherds in an arduous and isolated job that may prove essential to his country’s ability to adapt to a future defined by climate change.

trees in open land
An area close to Vermelhos, in southern Portugal, that was burned by a wildfire last month.

His hilltop village, Vermelhos, in southern Portugal, is surrounded by strips of barren land, as if a powerful lawn mower had driven across the area.

That is a credit to his 150 Algarve goats, an indigenous breed with dark spots on a white coat, who have nibbled away the underbrush that can fuel a fire.

The goats feed off all the local plants, including the strawberry tree, a bush that is turned by villagers into a liquor called aguardente de medronhos.

The strawberry tree’s leaves also 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 a government forestry institute last year with a budget of just a few thousand euros.

man in grey shirt and blue hat standing in middle of green plants
Mr. Martins Pereira had emigrated to France but came back to his village to follow his passion: working as a shepherd.

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.

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 in Portugal.

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

trees in open land with white clouds covering the sun
A field that Mr. Martins Pereira’s goats have cleared of underbrush as part of a government pilot project.

Vermelhos itself has shrunk to about 25 residents, from over 100 when Mr. Martins Pereira was growing up.

The primary school he attended closed 20 years ago. When he started looking after goats once tended by his great-grandfather, Vermelhos still had about 10 shepherds.

Antonio Barbara, a 93-year-old who used to be a shepherd, listed three things that had changed since his youth: less rainfall, more roads and many more burning bushes and trees.

“We really never had so many fires,” he said, while sitting on a village bench, talking to a neighbor and enjoying the shade.

Although the roads have improved significantly, it still takes one hour to drive the twisty 30 miles between Vermelhos and Faro, the main airport city of the Algarve region, a major tourism destination.

white man in grey shirt standing holding his hand next to his green car
“When people abandon the countryside, they also leave the land extremely vulnerable to fire,” João Cassinello, center, a regional official from Portugal’s agriculture ministry, said during a visit to Vermelhos.

But the tourists congregate at the coasts. They rarely make their way to inland villages like Vermelhos, 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, which can reach above 110 degrees Fahrenheit, or more than 43 degrees Celsius, in the summer months when the country 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 program gives him an extra three euros, or about $3.35, 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 said, 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.

Mexican men sitting outside as a group on a table
Mr. Martins Pereira, second from left, with friends. He is the last remaining shepherd in his village.

“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 added.

Mr. Sequeira said that he would take account of such complaints, but noted that a pilot phase allows for some fine-tuning before the project is expanded.

“We’re pleased so far, but the goal is to learn before doing this on a larger scale,” he said. “We are trying to change a whole system to prevent forest fires, and that takes time.”

Until then, Portugal is likely to face repeated tragedies.

Hotter European summers and more frequent and recurrent heat waves have spawned a proliferation of wildfires around Europe. Last year, forest fires destroyed about three million acres of European land, an area larger than Cyprus, at a cost of 10 billion euros.

brown and white goats running in group across dark sand
The Algarve goat, an indigenous breed with dark spots on a white coat, feeds off all the local plants.

But almost no country has been harder hit than Portugal, which has lost more of its forest to fires since the start of the decade than any other southern European country, including Spain, Italy and Greece, according to the European Commission.

In July, 30 people were injured as fires destroyed vast tracts of forest, and this month about 500 firefighters were needed to put out a major blaze near the central town of Tomar.

Two summers ago forest fires killed more than 100 people. The worst occurred outside Pedrógão Grande, in central Portugal, where 66 people died. The flames cut off a road, leaving drivers stranded in their burning vehicles.

The Pedrógão Grande fire provoked a fresh round of soul-searching in Portugal and highlighted a history of political inaction, deficient land management and the prioritizing of firefighting over fire prevention. This year, Portugal is spending almost half of its rural firefighting budget on prevention measures, compared with only 20 percent in 2017.

“I think we finally understood that we cannot just fight fires but must also prevent them, by working hard in the forest during the months before the summer heat arrives,” said Paulo Dias, a forestry engineer who has been monitoring the goat project.

In the case of Vermelhos, Mr. Martins Pereira and other villagers fought in 2004 against a fire that burned for a week and destroyed the cork trees that form one of Portugal’s main industries.

Firefighters, he recalled, arrived a day after the blaze started and the authorities issued contradictory instructions.

He ignored their advice to let his goats run into the hills, he said. Instead, he kept them instead inside his stable, ensuring their survival.

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