The Grazing Fire Brigade

August 10, 2011

The disappearance of grazing herds of sheep and goats transformed large areas of the Mediterranean mountain landscape into forest with dense undergrowth and scrub. These landscapes are particularly susceptible to large fires and extremely dry summers due to climate change increase the chances of this. But with the return of native herbivores such as deer, ibex, wild horses and wild cattle, semi-natural landscapes, which are much less vulnerable to fires, are once again formed.

Summer is here and soon we will be shocked by reports of widespread fires in the Mediterranean region.

Every year it costs peoples’ lives and fires are burning down entire regions. In part, this is a natural phenomenon, the result of lightning or scalding plant remains. But in the densely populated coastal areas of Portugal, Spain, southern France and Greece fires are more often, consciously or unconsciously, started by human action. Climate change, which causes drier summers, increases the risk of fires even further.

Natural forests have a large internal resistance when it comes to fire. Their rich , complex makeup and wide species variation in flammability makes it harder for flames to spread quickly. In addition, pressure by large grazing animals in open spaces and strips in the forest, act as natural firebreaks.

This role of large herbivores was taken over during the last millennia by domesticated livestock. Until recently, millions of animals were kept in the Mediterranean, especially sheep and goats, causing large intensively grazed or even overgrazed areas. The open landscapes that were created, at least had one advantage: large-scale fires had little chance to grab hold. Localised burning could even become part of the grazing culture, preventing these fires from getting out of control.

The modern European agricultural policy ended this situation abruptly. Whether or not funded by the EU, farmers and herders exchanged their rural existence for an appealing life in the big cities or tourist centers along the coast. The result is that in a few decades livestock numbers in the Mediterranean has collapsed and entire regions are rapidly becoming overgrown with dense shrub and young forest. Across thousands of acres there is a more or less homogeneous vegetation. Because of their uniform nature and extent, this dense growth can rapidly spread a fire, whereby villages can suddenly be trapped. And if any of the remaining shepherds still uses their age-old tradition to burn the bush, the consequences are dramatic and incalculable. Even a discarded cigarette butt, a spark from a stalled train wheel or a natural lightning strike may launch an inferno.

The solution to this problem is not the return to extensive agriculture. The young shepherds and farmers, have left the uncertain livelihood of rural areas for urban prosperity.

However there is a viable alternative, we can fall back on the natural processes that make the Mediterranean forests more resistant to forest fires: natural grazing by deer, ibex, chamois, wild horses and wild cattle.  The first small-scale attempts at this have already begun, spread across the Mediterranean: in Eastern Portugal, Spain and in the Bulgarian Rhodopes. The additional positive spin off to this is that the naturally grazed forests around the Mediterranean are of breathtaking beauty and become tourist attractions with a vengeance: wilderness as the basis for a new rural economy with a grazing fire brigade.

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