Amid a summer with blistering heat waves and Earth’s hottest month on record, Spain is looking to goats as a solution to combat wildfires.

Spain has struggled with limited rainfall and dry terrain, making the country susceptible to wildfires. Goats herds, with their ability to clear underbrush and create fire breaks at low costs and without detriment to the environment, have long been seen as a key tool for wildfire mitigation. Various methods currently are being developed to sustain and encourage their use.

Using goats to fight fires is not a new idea. In Andalucia, in southern Spain, shepherds have been patrolling forests with their herds “for thousands of years,” Laura Rayas, a technical advisor for forest firefighting at INFOCA of the Junta de Andalucía, said in an interview. 

“Mediterranean ecosystems have been linked to livestock use for thousands of years, so they do not cause disturbances,” Rayas said.

Spain. Andalusia
A shepherd crosses a road with his herd of goats in Andalucia, Spain. Goats are increasingly seen as a solution to wildfire mitigation. 

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But as wildfires scorch the earth at an increasingly alarming rate, Spain has been working to refine this age-old approach to ensure misconceptions, public perceptions and costs don’t hinder the use of goat herds. 

Low-cost and “highly effective”

Goats can reach areas and terrain difficult for humans and impossible for brush-clearing machines to reach. Their propensity and appetite make the herds “highly effective” for clearing shrubs that can grow back quickly. 

Costs for goats to clear brush run about 180 euros (about $197) per hectare, compared to 1,000 euros (about $1,097) for a brush-clearing crew, said BBVA.  Goat herds run about 75% percent cheaper than brush crews, according to the Spanish National Research Council.

In the U.S., the use of herds is also considerably less expensive than using machinery or crews to clear brush. Goat-powered fuel reduction costs between $400-$500 per acre, nearly one-third of the cost of more labor-intensive methods of brush clearing, the U.S. Forest Service found after running a pilot program to clear the Cleveland National Forest in California.

More countries “think outside of the box”

Countries with similar climates have followed Spain’s blueprint. In the U.S., California has implemented targeted grazing statewide as part of its strategy to reduce wildfire risks – even though recent skirmishes around labor laws and overtime payments could hold up some programs. In the San Francisco Bay Area, goats and sheep are used by the transportation system to mitigate fire hazards.  After wildfires devastated several communities in Colorado, some municipalities implemented goat grazing programs.  

 A goat protecting ocean view homes from wildfire in Laguna Beach, CA. Although the goats provide a cost – effective brush-clearing method, some environmentalists worry that they also destroy endangered plants and alter the ecosystem.

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Reno, Nevada, announced in June that they will be using young Spanish goats to graze in areas of the city. “Rosewood Canyons is prone to fire,” Reno Fire Marshal Tray Palmer said in a news release. “We saw it with the Caughlin Fire and we saw it again with the Pinehaven Fire. Sometimes we have to think outside of the box with fire mitigation and in this case, it’s goats.”

After deadly 2017 wildfires in Chile that left dozens dead, thousands injured and almost 440,000 hectares destroyed, a program modeled on those of Spain’s and named “Buena Cabra,” or the “good goat,” was started to control wildfires, Reuters reported. 

New approaches to incentivize goat herds

In Spain, the next step will be convincing communities of the benefits of letting goats graze freely, as there is still “great ignorance” around the value of this approach, Rayas said. 

Some herds are outfitted with GPS devices to constrain the goats from wandering and bumping into hikers, tourists, or others, said BBVA Open Mind. Goats are “a key management model for preventing Big Forest Fires,” Guillem Armengol, a project technician at the Pau Costa Foundation, told BBVA.

The Government Sends To Gran Canaria Aerial Means And Specialists In Extinction To Fight The Fire
A man is seen with his goats close to the fire of Valleseco in the island of Gran Canaria.

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In Extremadura, a dry region in western Spain near the Portuguese border, a local professor started the Mosaic Project, which teaches shepherds to grow high-value crops such as olives, chestnuts, fruit trees and vines in fire breaks created by goats. The initiative provides administrative and field technical advice, among other services, and it helps shepherds who want to participate with their applications for funding.

Goatherders, shepherds and farmers in Andalucia and Valencia were paid bonuses if they concentrated their herds on fire breaks for a certain amount of time or if the goats cleared a certain amount of vegetation, according to the European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism. In Andalucia, 223 shepherds with more than 6100 hectares of grazed land had received payments by 2016.