Wildfires in Spain raze an average of nearly 100,000 hectares a year. And the problem is only getting worse. In the southern region of Andalusia, the number of large fires – more than 50,000 hectares in size – has almost doubled in the past 40 years.
But unexpected help may be at hand – the European bison. Although the large herbivore went extinct in the Iberian peninsula 10,000 years ago, its numbers have bounced back thanks to the work of the European Bison Conservation Centre of Spain.
Founded in 2008 by veterinarian Fernando Morán, the centre has helped reintroduce bison to several sites across the country. From an initial herd of 24, there are now 153 bison in Spain. The latest project is being carried out in a 1,000-hectare reserve in Andújar, Andalusia.
In this case, the goal is not just to reintroduce the animal, but also to study whether it can help reduce the risk of wildfires.
Morán has been granted permission from the Andalusian regional government to carry out a one-year investigation into the role bison can play in preventing wildfires by clearing away the scrubland and vegetation that fuel blazes.
Bison are particularly well-suited for this task – they can break through dense undergrowth, they create bare soil patches by wallowing and they have a voracious appetite.
“One of the characteristics of the animal is that it eats wood, shrubs, bushes, tree vegetation, leaves, branches – which is all combustible material in our country,” explains Morán. “If no one eats it or clears it away, it is susceptible to burn. And what it doesn’t eat, it breaks either by trampling or smashing it with its head.”
What’s more, it does this “on a massive scale because it is a very large animal,” says Morán.
This is where the European bison has an advantage over other grazing animals, like sheep and goats. Weighing up to 1,000 kilos, the bison can break through the thick undergrowth that smaller herbivores cannot access. More importantly, it eats up to 35 kilos of vegetation in a single day – the equivalent to 12,500 kilos a year.
“It’s a natural firefighter or wild firefighter that nature has assigned,” he says.
The idea of bison grazing in modern Spain may seem novel, but Morán says this was the norm for around 1.2 million years. Bison are even depicted in the 36,000-year-old cave paintings of Spain’s famous Cave of Altamira.
|Bison depicted in the 36,000-year-old cave paintings of Spain’s famous Cave of Altamira|
Restoring this balance has become particularly urgent in the wake of Spain’s depopulation crisis. As more people leave for the cities, land previously used for farming and other activities has become overgrown, which increases the risk of wildfires.
According to Morán, reintroducing the European bison is a way to restore the natural balance that was lost when the species, and other large herbivores, such as elephants, wild horses and rhinoceroses, went extinct on the Iberian peninsula.
“If you get rid of the bison or large herbivores, you are only going to have forests and shrubland,” he says.