This experimental operation will deploy around forty shepherds for 5 years. Paid 25 euros for each hectare cleaned, the return of the shepherds in the Portuguese hills makes it possible to repopulate regions strongly affected by the recent fires. The problem is that it is now more difficult for the government to find shepherds than grants to finance the project.
Faced with the upsurge of devastating fires, Portugal has deployed 18,500 goats to fight the bush and forest fires. This project aims to mitigate the failure of the use of drones and satellites, and improve the management of the country's environment.
While heat waves and droughts hit the European continent more and more severely, Portugal is among the countries most affected by the phenomenon. In ten years, Portugal has lost more than half of its forests because of fires. One of the most deadly is that of Pedrógão Grande, in the center of Portugal. In 2017, it destroyed more than 20 000 hectares and killed 65 people, burned alive in their vehicles immobilized by the flames.
After trying to smother the fires with the use of drones and satellites, Portugal is now turning to a much lower-tech solution: goats. Since March 2018, 18,500 goats have been sent to the scrubland to eat heather, broom and shrubs. They leave in their wake cleared sites, even the steepest and rocky, which limits the spread of fire in case of fire.
"When people abandon the countryside, they also leave the territory extremely vulnerable to fire. We lost a way of life in which the forest was precious," told the NY Times João Cassinello, one of the representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture of Portugal.
The rural exodus is far from being the only determining factor in the spread of fires in the country. The climate crisis, with increasing heat waves, combined with the cellulose industry creates an incendiary equation for the country. Launched on a large scale in the 1980s, this industrialization resulted in the planting of eucalyptus, an extremely flammable species that is highly demanded by the paper industry. Today, at least 9 % of the land (more than 800,000 hectares) is covered with eucalyptus.
This year, Portugal has spent almost half of its firefighting budget in rural areas on preventive measures, compared to only 20% in 2017. The success of 'the goat project' will also depend on the funding allocated to the shepherds, who must take care of animals 24 hours a day, to inspire new vocations.
Photo by David Whiting