It’s not what you’d expect from one of the rainiest countries in Europe. In the summer of 2021, a flowering plant called gorse caused wildfires that burned for six weeks in an outer suburb of Dublin, Ireland named Howth, before firefighters could get them under control. It was a bad summer for wildfires on the peninsula, but damaging fires are major challenges for people and wildlife there almost every year.
The local municipality has tried fire breaks and public awareness campaigns about the dangers of campfires and littering, but with little success. Now, however, they’ve got an unlikely set of helpers on the case: a herd of goats they hope will make this heathland less vulnerable to fire by munching their way through the dense thickets of highly flammable gorse and bracken that cover it.
Why Firefighting Goats Are Needed
Introduced in Sept. 2021, the goats themselves are a critically endangered indigenous breed known as old Irish goats. They were common in Howth (as they were across Ireland), until the middle of the 20th century. But the breed declined because of crossbreeding with imported goats and the dying out of traditional farming practices. That was unfortunate, says Seán Carolan, director of the Old Irish Goat Society (OIGS), which is leading the three-year project.
“The heathland was essentially created and managed by traditional grazing practices and because a lot of them have been abandoned in suburban areas, they've become overgrown and fire hazards,” says Carolan.
The project, which is funded by Fingal County Council, aims to determine the conservation grazing capacity of the goats and the cost-effectiveness of this eco-friendly method of wildfire prevention.
“If there are firebreaks that are well maintained, the fire service will be able to control the fires relatively easily,” explains Carolan.
The initial herd of 25 goats brought to Howth has swelled to 70 in Jan. 2023, with 27 females due for baby goats in March of this year. Alongside the fire prevention aims, OIGS hope that reintroducing Howth’s native goat will help bolster the population of this rare breed.
How the Goats Fight Fire
Split up into groups of 10 to 15 animals, according to age and sex, the goats are rotated around a series of grazing sites. The grazing sites cover approximately 5 percent of the peninsula.
While most of the goats simply maintain fire breaks that machinery originally creates, the mature bucks – known as the ‘bachelor herd’– also create fire breaks from scratch.
“They can do a lot of trashing with their horns and dominate the more mature bushes,” explains Melissa Jeuken, the project’s full-time goat herd.
The goats spend around a month at each grazing site, controlled not by traditional fencing – which would be expensive and labour intensive to install – but by GPS collars that sound an alarm when their wearers approach the virtual boundaries programmed into the system.
Jeuken trains the goats on the GPS collars from the age of six months (before this, they stick close to their mothers), over the course of three or four weeks. Once trained, the goats are “are very obedient to the system,” she says. They’re clever with it too, knowing that once the alarm starts to sound they’ve got another 19 seconds to finish up whatever they’re eating.
“What the virtual fencing does is modernise what is already a brilliant animal in terms of herd grazing,” says Carolan. “The functionality of these animals has been forgotten as we've moved into more monoculture-type farming.”
Traditional Meets Modern Grazing
Grazing – or rather “browsing” because the term includes all forms of plants – by herbivores is effective in wildfire management for a couple of reasons, explains Christopher Johnson, professor of wildlife conservation at the University of Tasmania and the lead author of a 2018 paper, published in the Royal Society.
“By removing a lot of living plant biomass, that reduces the amount of dry fuel that can accumulate,” he says. “So, [herbivore grazing] is a good way of localising fire and reducing its impact.”
There are risks associated with using herbivores in fire prevention, but most don’t apply to the Howth project, says Johnson. Not only are the numbers tiny but with the virtual fencing in place, there’s little risk of the goats becoming invasive and denuding the landscape. There can be a danger of extensive browsing of woody plants leaving space for flammable grasses to grow; as mixed feeders, however, old Irish goats will forage both woody plants and grass.
It's still early in the process for the goats in Howth, but the signs are good so far. Jeuken is delighted by what her “caprine crew” is achieving.
“Give them a week somewhere and you can see a difference. The initial change is very drastic,” she says.
Looking ahead, says Carolan, “what we need now is a lot of ecological survey data and secondary analysis of the goats to really analyze in greater detail what the effects are.” If the results are good, it could open the door to a wider application of this traditional-meets-modern solution to wildfire prevention.