Socioeconomic factors are producing large-scale land abandonment in various regions of the world. Pastoralism and nomadic behaviors are also on the decline across the globe. As a result, shrubs and trees progressively cover regions, accumulating flammable plant debris.
Firebreaks that had been established have been lost. Wildfires are more likely to occur and are more intense as a result of these factors. Investing in firefighting capability is now one of the most common answers to this threat. While this can help put out flames once they start, more promising techniques include preventing wildfires from igniting in the first place.
Researchers from Leipzig University's German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv), Wageningen University's Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), and CIBIO/InBIO (Research Centre in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources of the University of Porto and the University of Lisbon) discovered that large herbivores, such as domestic livestock, wild and semi-wild herbivores, might help lessen risks of fires.
The research was carried out as part of the Rewilding Europe-coordinated project GrazeLIFE (LIFE-Preparatory project on request of and co-financed by the European Commission).
Can Herbivores Help Avoid Wildfires?
The multinational study team looked into whether big herbivores might lower the amount of fire-prone vegetation and, as a result, the severity of wildfires. To do so, they looked at previous research that looked at the relationships between herbivores, vegetation structure, fire risk, fire frequency, and fire damage. They discovered that herbivores could reduce the severity of wildfire damage. Herbivore population density, herbivore species, diet, vegetation type, and environmental circumstances all influence efficacy.
Grazing to Lessen Risks of Fires
"Not just domestic animals, but also reintroduced wild and semi-wild herbivores" may do the job, according to Julia Rouet-Leduc, the study's primary author and a doctorate researcher at iDiv and Leipzig University. "They have the potential to reduce wildfire danger, particularly in remote and inaccessible places where proper herbivore management may combine wildfire prevention with environment protection."
"Extensive forms of grazing will not lead to short homogeneous vegetation," said Dr. Fons van der Plas, senior author of the study and an assistant professor at Wageningen University. "However, the presence of short grazed patches can already be enough to avoid uncontrollable fire spread, acting as natural fire breaks." Short-term intense grazing (also known as "targeted grazing") can be coupled with additional activities such as mechanical clearance to minimize fire risks even more.
The researchers provide recommendations for land managers and governments to minimize wildfires based on their results. One option is to keep and promote substantial grazing by domestic or (semi-)wild herbivores in regions that are now being abandoned. This will necessitate the integration of appropriate agricultural, forestry, and fire management strategies and financial assistance for animal-based fire prevention. The Common Agricultural Policy in Europe, for example, should encourage farmers and landowners to use substantial grazing for fire suppression.
"Letting animals do the work is a very cost-effective approach to manage the land while also restoring lost ecosystem services, and it may benefit local people," said Dr. Guy Pe'er, principal author of the study and researcher at iDiv and UFZ.
"At the same time, we must realize that fires are natural processes that are critical to many ecosystems, and we must learn to live with them to some degree," Rouet-Leduc added. "Wildfires are anticipated to grow more severe in many regions of the world as a result of climate change," Pe'er added. "Current regulations can and should take far more account of nature-based solutions, such as enabling herbivores to perform their job."
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