As countries around the world struggle to contain ever more destructive wildfires, some of them are turning to a natural solution to help – hungry goats.
Herds of goats are munching their way through underbrush in Portugal, Spain, Australia, Ireland, and the United States, creating local employment and healthier soil as they create firebreaks in places that are often hard to reach.
Four flocks of sheep and goats are now working on the hills above Barcelona, Spain. And these “fire flocks” are cleaning up the forest better than machines or men wielding gas-guzzling blowers.
Ferran Paunè, a University of Vic ecology professor, says that “if you do not have herbivores, you have fire.” He told The World that unchecked forest growth has thrown the countryside out of balance and goats and sheep can help. “As a society we look at a forest as a very good thing. But for our countries, it is a big problem, because there are few wild animals in the woods.”
It’s something people on the US west coast have known for quite a while. If you google goats and wildfire, you will see lots and lots of results.
The late Brea McGrew, a veterinarian, and her husband, Bob, a fireman, started using goats in the hills above Oakland and Berkeley in 1991. While now it is common, it seemed like a rather wild idea at the time. The Daily Republic explained how it got started in a 2016 story.
They started the year after a huge fire in the Oakland Hills claimed the lives of 25 people and destroyed $1.5 billion in property, and showed municipalities that they needed to better manage overgrown open spaces, Brea said. That was how they came to create EcoSystem Concepts, which they described as the home of four-legged firefighters.
The idea actually came from Canada, she said. Canada had reconsidered its policy of not allowing grazing on public lands, and started to bring in sheep from the US because many ranchers who had used public lands were no longer in business, she explained.
“My husband and I had a pretty large herd of sheep, in the thousands, and I was the president of the local wool growers association,” she said. “So Canada was trying to bring in sheep from the United States and I got wind of that, and knew that was going to happen here, too. But goats were a more attractive option because they eat brush material, including tough invasive species, while sheep tended to be grass browsers. “So we started to phase in the goats.”
Smithsonian Magazine explained why municipalities had increasingly turned to goats, in a story it published in 2001.
“When the rains stop in April, vegetation turns crisp and brown; the tiniest spark can set off a major conflagration. Yet there are few weapons against the threat. A prescribed burn, deliberately set to burn the hazardous dry fuel, can too easily get out of hand, as happened at Los Alamos in 2000. “You can’t use chemicals,” because they leach into the water supply and the areas in danger are far too large, says Mike Phillips, who works in fire prevention for Laguna Beach, where a 1993 fire destroyed more than 400 houses. Fire-prone terrain is often too rugged for mechanized equipment; ferrying in crews by helicopter is far too expensive. “Anyway,” says Walt Fujii, former supervisor of parks and trees for Menlo Park, “bring in a hand crew for a day and they’re out two weeks with poison oak. And when they cut the stuff down, what do you do with it?”
Send in the goats.”
Smithsonian visited the McGrews as they prepared for that summer’s grazing.
“Goats are good for this sort of fuel management because they are primarily browsers,” said Brea, explaining that brush, once ignited, acts like a ladder carrying the fire to the treetops. “Goats would rather eat brush than grass,” she added. “They like their food right at eye level. At home, the goats ignore the wonderful green grass and look longingly at the scruffy taller stuff beyond the fence.”
In 1996, Fujii began hiring their goats for two weeks at $15,000 per stint to reduce the fire hazard, and found that there was an extra benefit. “You wouldn’t believe what we took out of there the first year,” he saidi. “One and a half truckloads of junk, bottles, cans, paper—you name it. It was like the snow country after the snow melts. The goats really opened it up.”
It was a big operation, the Smithsonian reported. A livestock trailer-truck carrying 450 yearlings and a half dozen mothers with kids. A small house trailer to house the two Peruvian goatherds. Guard dogs and Border collie herding dogs. A pickup carrying water troughs, electric fencing, and food for the men.
Small trees and sensitive native plants were fenced off before the goats arrived, and started work.”Three hundred and fifty of them can denude an acre a day, consuming low branches and foliage, stripping bark from French and Scotch broom and other shrubs, eating grass down to putting-green height. After such a meal, they are moved to another acre.”
Nowadays, goats are dining out throughout California. They’re effective, and they are quiet, so they don’t disturb visitors to parks.
Laguna’s Mike Phillips told the Smithsonian Magazine that just three things contribute to wildland fires. “Fuel loads, topography and weather.” He paused, then smiled. “We can’t change the topography, and we can’t do anything about the weather. The only variable to reduce is the fuel load. That’s what goats do for us.”
When Mike Canaday started renting goats in 2003, he mostly heard from landowners who wanted to clear dense brush. Then people started to ask if his herd of 150 goats could create firebreaks in wildfire-prone areas. Now he owns 3,500 Boer, Kiko, LaMancha, and Spanish breeds, and his company, Living Systems Land Management, is so busy he has a waiting list. “We are screaming busy from mid-April to mid-July because of the fires,” he says.
Across California and the West, goats are on the front lines of fire prevention.
“When we graze goats in an area, all of the fuel is removed before fire season and it doesn’t grow back until the following season—and it’s much safer to have goats graze difficult terrain,” said Kenneth VanWig, chief of the Ventura County Fire Department. The fire department began using goats about a decade ago, and VanWig says are the best fire prevention tools available. “We’ve had huge success.”
Among the herds keeping busy in California is a nonprofit called City Grazing, which provides a new home for unwanted goats as well as sustainable land management and fire risk reduction through outreach, education, and goat grazing. It started with 10 goats that were up for auction but now, most are retired dairy goats whose owners can’t keep them anymore or who are rescued before becoming part of the meat industry.
Demand for Grazing Goats Is Growing Like Wildfire. Sierra Club, Sep. 3, 2018
Dixon goats help reduce fire risk. Daily Republic, Jul. 20, 2016.
Using Goats to Prevent Wildfires. Smithsonian Magazine, Oct. 2001