Grazing to minimise wildfire risk

January 29, 2021

Concern about wildfire risk is growing around the world. Yet experience from the GrazeLIFE study area in the Greater Côa Valley in northern Portugal is demonstrating grazing by large, free-roaming herds of herbivores can be a natural solution and a low-impact way of controlling wildfire.

Male Red-footed Falcon hunting over burning steppe fields, Bagerova Steppe, Kerch Peninsula, Crimea, Ukraine
A combination of factors such as climate change and changes in land use has seen wildfires increase in frequency and severity across the world.
Grzegorz Lesniewski/ Wild Wonders of Europe


A burning issue

Recent years have seen unusually severe fires in countries such as Canada, the US, Australia, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Chile, claim hundreds of lives and cause huge amounts of economic damage. In many regions, climate change is increasing the likelihood of hot and dry conditions in which wildfires thrive. Fire seasons have already lengthened around the world, and modelling predicts significant increases in fire activity in high-risk areas such as the western US and southern Europe.

The Mediterranean region accounts for around 85 per cent of the burned area in Europe every year. This is due to extreme weather, compounded by problems of rural depopulation, flammable tree species, and encroachment of shrubland on abandoned areas. These fires can be devastating to people, property and wild nature.


The Greater Côa Valley: a case in point

Genista sp., shrub vegetation natural recovery, Pyrenean oak plantation, Quercus pyrenaica, Serra da Malcata Nature Reserve, Greater Coa Valley, Western Iberia, Rewilding Portugal, Rewilding Europe, Portugal, Europe
The combination of close plantations and the proliferation of shrub vegetation after land abandonment makes landscapes highly susceptible to wildfire.
Juan Carlos Muñoz Robredo / Rewilding Europe

Especially the period from July to October is a risky one in Portugal and Spain every year. Temperatures rise and rains are scarce. This means a great risk of fire. Even though wildfires are a natural phenomenon here, the frequency and scale have increased to very high and dangerous levels that are not natural. And not only because of a changing climate but due to the combined effect with changes in land use.

Like much of the Mediterranean region, the Greater Côa Valley has experienced high levels of land abandonment for many years. As people have left the land, so grazing livestock numbers have plummeted, meaning many landscapes are increasingly covered by young, often monotonous forest or dense scrub. The proliferation of bushes, coupled with the close plantation of pine and eucalyptus trees, leaves such landscapes highly susceptible to wildfire.


Grazing fire brigades

Grazing cattle in Western Iberia
Maronesa cattle grazing in the Faia Brava Nature Reserve, within the Greater Côa Valley.

To date, the most common way of mitigating wildfire risk has been to promote and develop expensive and complicated fire prevention programmes. Even when people look for natural solutions to wildfires, they tend to focus on vegetation – not animals.

Yet experience from the GrazeLIFE study area in the Greater Côa Valley in northern Portugal is demonstrating how rewilding – and more specifically grazing by large, free-roaming herds of herbivores such as horses and wild cattle – can be a far cheaper and far more natural, low-impact way of controlling wildfire while boosting local biodiversity at the same time. Such herds are rapidly gaining a reputation as highly effective “grazing fire brigades”.

By bringing back wild and semi-wild herbivores – GrazeLIFE-partner ATN (Associação Transumância e Natureza) and the Rewilding Portugal team are significantly reducing wildfire risk, with such herbivores consuming plant matter that would otherwise accumulate as fuel, creating mosaic landscapes with open spaces that act as effective firebreaks, and reengineering the soil and litter layer.


Immediate impact

Since 2006 around 45 Garrano horses have been released into the 1000-hectare Faia Brava Reserve, which straddles the Côa Valley, plus a number of Tauros. These animals have already reduced the incidence of wildfire in Faia Brava. In 2017, much of the Greater Côa Valley was severely impacted by fire. The reserve and surrounding area escaped, principally because of natural grazing and permanent vigilance.


GrazeLIFE fieldwork
As part of GrazeLIFE, plant biomass is measured to assess wildfire risk in an area grazed by semi-wild horses.

Assessing wildfire risk

An important part of GrazeLIFE is working on a robust knowledge-base on different types of grazing and their effect on biodiversity, wildfire prevention and other benefits for people and nature. In 2020, a team from Universidade da Coruña, one of our GrazeLIFE partners, started with fieldwork in the Serra da Groba area in northwestern Spain. About 1100 Galician ponies roam freely in this area.

Because one of the most important parameters to assess wildfire risk is the amount of fuel, the team collected data on plant biomass, to evaluate the risk in this grazed area and compare it with the main alternative land use in the region, which is afforestation.


European rabbit, Oryctolagus the Campanarios de Azaba reserve, a Rewilding Europe area, Salamanca district, Spain
Mosaic landscapes are helping to boost populations of various animals, which in turn play an important part within food chains and the ecosystem as a whole.
Staffan Widstrand / Rewilding Europe

Added value

The creation of mosaic landscapes through natural grazing also helps to enhance biodiversity. In the Greater Côa Valley, such landscapes are helping to boost populations of species such as the European rabbit and red-legged partridge, which in turn increases the availability of prey for predators such as the Iberian lynx and Bonelli’s eagle and scavengers such as vultures.





GrazeLIFE evaluates the benefits of various land management models involving domesticated and wild/semi-wild herbivores. The project is carried out at the request of the European Commission. The GrazeLIFE Consortium gathers information through literature reviews, interviews with more than 100 stakeholders, and field research in 8 European regions (encompassing 11 European countries). Through these blogs, the 10 consortium partners share experiences and insights that are intended to support discussion on grazing best practice.
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