Fri, Oct 12, 2018 - Page 6 News List

FEATURE: Goats battling Portugal’s deadly forest fires

AFP, LORIGA, Portugal

Portuguese shepherd Fernando Moura milks a goat near Loriga in the Serra da Estrela mountains in Portugal on Sept. 21.

Photo: AFP

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

Hoping to contain wildfires that threaten its mountains each year, the Portuguese 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, troops and water-dumping aircraft.

More than 100 people were killed in the nation’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 would 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 the slopes of the central Serra da Estrela range and clear about 50 hectares of scrubland to create the natural firewalls.

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

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

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

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 as 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 (US$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.

In Portugal’s hilly interior regions, many residents have left for lives elsewhere. Only the elderly remain in some villages, leaving abandoned fields easy prey for flames.

“There is a lot of wild vegetation left around our villages,” Moura said, perched on a huge granite outcrop overlooking the slopes.

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 past 10 years and no deaths.

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.”

For Moura and his herd, the day’s work ends at sunset, when the goats are left with his sheep dogs in an enclosure set among the imposing mountains, while Moura returns to his village in the valley with the goats’ milk for his wife to make cheese.

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