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Animals take on wildfire fuel as well as insurance companies at Oregon winery

by Michael Alberty, The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) |

Stephen Hagen enlists a small army of animals to help keep his home, farm buildings and vineyards safe from wildfires. It turns out the four-legged critters are surprisingly good at their new “all-you-can-eat” job.

At Antiquum Farm in Junction City, Ore., 15 miles north of Eugene, animals ranging from cross-bred Katahdin-Dorper sheep to Kunekune pigs are regularly rotated throughout the property to eat plant material and redistribute the nutrients to the soil. Hagen calls the practice grazing-based viticulture. Hagen is adding the forest to his animals’ dinner circuit thanks to the recent spate of West Coast wildfires.

“After towns in California were wiped out by fires, insurance carriers began redlining entire neighborhoods,” Hagen said. “Redlining” in this context refers to an insurance company refusing to cover a property based solely on a risk associated with a geographical location.

“When our former carrier redlined our neighborhood,” Hagen said, “they told me, ‘your home is in an area too prone to wildfires. We’re not insuring it.’ ”

Hagen has had to switch insurance companies twice in the past several years because of his address.

“Our insurance costs have gone through the roof as companies are increasingly unwilling to take on the risk of insuring a property with significant investments in infrastructure in the country,” Hagen said.

Deciding that the best offense against wildfires and insurance companies is a good defense, Hagen started sending farm animals into the forest to eat potential wildfire fuel in the summer of 2021. According to Hagen, “The idea is not to eliminate fire. The idea is to find ways to live with, survive through and recover from fire without total devastation.”

While Hagen’s use of animal grazing to slow wildfires and mitigate their damage is new to the Willamette Valley, the strategy is already being used in California and Nevada. One survey conducted by the University of California Cooperative Extension found that “Grazing is most effective at treating smaller diameter live fuels that can greatly impact the rate of spread of a fire along with the flame height.”

Hagen started by clearing a one to two-acre radius around his home and outbuildings of potential fire fuel. After Hagen spaces out trees and limbs up the remainders, the areas he refers to as “transitional pasture areas” are cleared of grasses by grazing sheep.

When the sheep finish, goats move through the transitional pasture area to eat any remaining brush. If stands of Himalayan blackberries are present, the Kunekune pigs will join in to help eat the leaves. Hagen finishes up by re-seeding the area with clover and forage. If brush re-emerges, the sheep and goats will return.

The final stage involves providing a safe way for the pigs and goats to temporarily live and graze in the forest. Their mission is to eat the vegetation that creates a ladder effect allowing a fire to jump the forest floor to tree canopies.

First, Hagen fences off an area in the forest. Then mobile shelters are set up for the animals. Maremma guardian dogs protect the goats and pigs from predators, particularly the big cats that hunt the area. “There’s one mountain lion that has to weigh 250 pounds, and it looks like an African lioness,” Hagen said.

The goats and pigs go after non-native species such as Himalayan blackberries and Scotch broom. In addition to providing fuel for fires, these invasive species choke out the forest’s natural ecosystem and block larger animals like deer and elk from freely passing through.

Hagen said some blackberry bushes would grow 10 feet tall and 50 yards across. He uses weed whackers with brush blades to cut two-foot-wide paths every 15-20 feet in the blackberry stands. This allows easier access for the goats to eat the plant’s leaves. The Kunekune pigs will even dig out the root system of a blackberry bush while going after fallen berries.

The defoliated plants soon lose the ability to store energy and take up nutrients. Hagen uses the weed whackers to cut the remaining canes and brush to the ground. If anything attempts to re-emerge in the spring, the goats will return for lunch. Eventually, the plants will lose the ability to rebuild reserves, and their root mass will die. Surprisingly, the animals do little to no damage to native plants.

It’s been less than a year since the animals hit the woods, but the results are already noticeable. “We’ve seen an immediate impact. There are cleared areas I never thought I’d be able to walk through. We’ve seen deer, bobcats and all sorts of animals crossing through those areas, Hagen said.

Hagen expects to see a gradual return to a more-native forest understory as his four-legged firefighters continue to eat up wildfire fuel. Who knows how long it will take insurance companies to come around?