Swapping sirens for bells and equipped with voracious appetites, Barcelona’s newest firefighting recruits began delicately picking past hikers and cyclists in the city’s largest public park earlier this year. The four-legged brigade – made up of 290 sheep and goats – had just one task: to munch on as much vegetation as possible.
Their arrival turned Barcelona into one of the latest places to embrace an age-old strategy that’s being revived as officials around the world face off against a rise in extreme wildfires.
The idea is simple: wildfire-prone areas are handed over to grazing animals, who chomp and trample over dry vegetation that could otherwise accumulate as fuel for fires. Whether the animals are semi-wild or overseen by a shepherd who is usually compensated for their efforts, a job well done usually leaves behind a landscape dotted with open spaces that can act as firebreaks.
It’s a nod to how wildfires were warded off in the past. “We’re not inventing anything new here,” said Guillem Canaleta of the Pau Costa Foundation, a Catalan non-profit that has been implementing the strategy since 2016 in the province of Girona, near Barcelona. “What we’re doing is recovering something that already existed and that was disappearing.”
In Barcelona, the pilot project was launched in April in Collserola park, an 8,000 hectare (20,000 acres) green space perched over the city and which sees an average of 50 fires a year, said Eloi Badia, the Barcelona city councillor for climate emergency and ecological transition.
Usually the fires are swiftly put out. “It is not lost on anybody that if one day there was to be a major fire, it would have a big impact,” he said. “It’s a very urban park, surrounded by densely packed municipalities.”
The city’s foray into the strategy echoes similar efforts around the world. In California, where more than 850,000 hectares were consumed by wildfire last year, a dozen companies contract out goats for targeted grazing. In northern Portugal, 45 endangered Garrano horses and their appetites were credited with helping to spare the Faia Brava reserve from the devastating impact of the 2017 wildfire. In the Canadian province of British Columbia, cattle have been used to clear areas at risk of wildfires.
Parts of Spain adopted the strategy nearly two decades ago, when the southern region of Andalusia began paying shepherds to traverse its overgrown plains and valleys with their animals. The regional programme has since swelled to include more than 100,000 animals, saving officials an estimated 75% of the cost of having the land mechanically cleared.
The grazing has brought about other benefits: the animals carry seeds and fertilise as they move through the terrain and their relatively indiscriminate feeding habits nurture biodiversity by curtailing the competitive advantage of some plants.
Research has suggested targeted grazing can be effective when paired with other wildfire prevention methods such as mechanical clearing and controlled burning, said Julia Rouet-Leduc, a researcher at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research at the University of Leipzig.
“It’s not a miracle solution,” she added. “But it is part of a solution that can help landscapes be more resilient to fire.”
Its success lies in tackling the perfect storm created by climate change-induced drought and decades of rural exodus. “There’s a lot of this shrubby, woody vegetation that grows on former pastures or agricultural land that is creating a lot of fuel for wildfires,” she said. “And that leads to wildfires that are bigger and harder to control when they happen.”
In Barcelona, where the pilot project wrapped up last month, plans are now under way to expand it to as many as three flocks and potentially more of the city’s green spaces.
The animals ended up tending 72 hectares of the park, said Badia. But they also transformed the city in other, more subtle ways. “There was this boom of residents who wanted to visit the animals, it became the quintessential family activity,” he said. “So it also had this social and cultural impact.”