Wildfire prevention: a reason for promoting pastoralism in Spain
The Mediterranean climate, particularly the prolonged dry and hot summer season, is naturally favourable to wildfires. Their frequency and impact have increased over the last few decades in southern European countries, mainly due to land-use and socio-economic changes. Many traditional rural activities (e.g. firewood collection and livestock grazing systems) have been partly or totally abandoned in favour of alternatives (e.g. fossil fuels and factory farming). These changes have led to more homogeneous landscapes and the accumulation of dry matter in forests and rangelands, resulting in a greatly increased fire hazard.
The situation is further aggravated by current climate trends and the persistent high numbers of human-caused wildfires. Under such conditions, the likelihood of severe wildfire events happening is nowadays very high in all countries on the north side of the Mediterranean. These fires result in losses of human life, major destruction of wildlife habitats and often subsequent soil erosion, and a significant release of carbon into the atmosphere.
Wildfires have become a major issue for forest services in the region and specific wildfire prevention programmes have been established, usually focusing on creating fire breaks to contain the spread of wildfires and improve the effectiveness of fire suppression brigades. Regular fire break maintenance is necessary to offset vegetation growth, but can be costly when mechanical means (e.g. brush shredders) are used. Since livestock is known to effectively control shrub growth, targeted grazing offers an alternative method.
Livestock grazing reduces wildfire hazard
When adequately managed, most types of grazing livestock can give excellent wildfire prevention, but sheep and goat systems have some features that make them particularly well-suited to this objective. In the Mediterranean, many sheep and goat breeds are native and so well-adapted to the kind of pasture resources available in the region, where animals have always grazed forest and scrub areas where the quality and quantity of fodder may be limited.
Furthermore, in the Mediterranean, sheep and goats are usually guided by a shepherd, who can ensure that high stocking rates are maintained on the fire breaks without the use of fences while still allowing the flock access to adequate water and feed. Involving shepherds in forest protection can have further benefits for wildfire prevention - they provide an early warning of any fires which occur and their very presence on the pasture can discourage arsonists.
The management of fire breaks by grazing has been widely applied in south-eastern France over the past 25 years, providing the most important reference point for the region. Other Mediterranean countries have also run tests, but only a few of these have developed into permanent management programmes. In several Spanish regions government forest services and local livestock farmers have collaborated in wildfire prevention programmes, following a number of different formats.
Fire break grazing programmes in Spain
Fire break grazing programmes are mostly funded directly by the forest services of the Spanish regional governments. This is an indication of the importance placed by forest managers on maintaining some livestock grazing in forest areas, now that extensive livestock systems and the associated grazing pressure have declined.
The usual pattern is that the farmers that take part in these programmes graze their livestock intensively in fire break areas defined by forest services, thereby reducing vegetation fuel loads. In exchange for this service, they receive monetary and/or in-kind remuneration, for example, animal housing, fences or water troughs.
In the Comunitat Valenciana in eastern Spain, for instance, a programme which ran between 1996 and 2009 established a payment of €22 ha-1 yr-1 to farmers who concentrated their livestock on fire breaks for a minimum of 130 days yr-1, during which period a minimum stocking rate of one cow, three goats or five sheep per hectare had to be maintained. If fencing or the watering facilities were necessary, the payment could be increased by some €20-40 ha-1 yr-1. Under this system, 3,680 ha of fire breaks were grazed in 2009 with the collaboration of 62 farmers. Unfortunately this scheme has since been cancelled due to shortage of funds.
In Andalucía, in southern Spain, livestock grazing of fire breaks started being tested in 2003 and was more widely promoted in 2005, while remuneration for farmers was implemented from 2007. The payments currently range from €42 to €90 ha-1 yr-1, depending on the grazing difficulty (steepness, type of vegetation and distance to animal housing) associated to the fire breaks. The work of each farmer is evaluated every year, and the amount of money they finally receive can be decreased (or even cancelled) if the grazing objectives are not met. By 2011, the grazed fire break network of Andalucía had expanded to cover 6,680 ha and involved 222 farmers.
Providing funding for these innovative fire-prevention schemes is a major challenge, although the Rural Development Programmes (RDP) of the CAP would seem an obvious source of money. In fact in its RDP for 2007-2013, the region of Catalunya (north-eastern Spain) has used an agri-environmental scheme to promote livestock grazing in forest areas with high fire risk.
Also, as reported in La Cañada 25, the region of Castilla y León (north-western Spain) has run a very innovative scheme known as "Plan 42", under which RDP funds are used to improve farm infrastructures and grazing planning, as well as to promote shrub-shredding as an alternative technique to regenerate overgrown or encroached pastures. Outreach to farmers via local project officers was also a key element (but not RDP funded). Most importantly, drastic reductions in the number of wildfires have been registered in the areas of application of this programme.
Unfortunately this very successful programme has been dropped by the regional government, as was the scheme in Valencia. EFNCP believes that innovative fire-prevention schemes of these sorts should be a priority for RDP funds in Spain in the coming programme period (2014-20).
Alliances to support Pastoralism in Andalucía
Wildfires are making all stakeholders realise the benefits of working together and the importance of pastoralism for forest management in Andalucia. The network of professionals from different sectors (farmers, foresters, researchers, etc.) collaborating in the grazed fire break network has given rise to a new organisation. The Asociación Pastores por el Monte Mediterráneo (Association of Shepherds for the Mediterranean Forest) endeavours to back pastoralism by claiming its positive nature conservation outcomes. This association has become a member of EFNCP and we undertake a joint programme of work.