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.
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.
“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.
Vermelhos itself has shrunk to about 25 residents, from over 100 when 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.
Shepherds like 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, Martins Pereira sets off for the hills at dawn and returns late at night.
“Living and working with animals is a 24-hour job,” Martins Pereira said.
By his own calculations, the government program gives him an extra 3 euros, or about $3.35, per day, on top of what he can earn from selling his animals and their produce, compared with the 30 euros 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.
Hotter European summers and more frequent and recurrent heat waves have spawned a proliferation of wildfires around Europe. Last year, forest fires destroyed about 3 million acres of European land, an area larger than Cyprus, at a cost of 10 billion euros.
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, 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 authorities issued contradictory instructions.
He ignored their advice to let his goats run into the hills, he said. Instead, he kept them inside his stable, ensuring their survival.