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Scorched Portugal turns to the goat as a low-cost firefighter

Portugal has scrambled to find solutions to wildfires that have ravaged the country in recent years. Part of Portugal’s problem is that inland villages have shed their populations. The absence of shepherds, goatherds and farmers has left forest l...

, New York Times|
Aug 20, 2019, 09.24 AM IST
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Reuters Goat Pic
A shepherd takes a picture of the flock as they are herded to summer pastures in Serra da Estrela, near Seia, Portugal. (Reuters)
VERMELHOS: 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 longterm 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.

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 programme 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.

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. 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.

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