SPAIN – GALICIA — The forest fire stopped just before arriving at Nieves Fernández Vidueira’s farm, but it burned all day in the area surrounding Quintela do Pando in Galicia, northwestern Spain.
“I will never forget the terror that I felt,” Fernández said. “When we woke up we couldn’t even breathe, everything was covered with smoke, it seemed like night, chunks of scorched bark fell from the sky.”
Fernández, 59, is a shepherd and poet who says she will always remember Oct. 16, 2017, when all the neighbors went to the nearby village of Fradelo to help the firefighters. “The trees made a terrible noise and fell to the charred ground. I saw rabbits and roe deer escaping from the fire, people cried all around. Right now, I still cry when I remember it.”
During that time, Galicia experienced an unusual heat wave, as happened in other parts of the Iberian Peninsula. “Many hectares were destroyed during a day of flames and the fire stopped at an area of chestnut trees grazed by sheep, surrounding my field. Livestock are a fundamental part of forest fire prevention, by eating the grass in the undergrowth, and highly combustible lichens on the trees,” Fernández said.
That day, she composed a poem to express feelings of sadness and impotence after seeing the woods transformed into a dark desert.
Writing poetry under the centenary chestnut trees
Fernández became a shepherd at 19 when she was expecting her first son. She decided at the time to leave Madrid and come back to Quintela do Pando, where she grew up.
“In the past, practically only men worked as shepherds: a woman like me broke all the existing patterns. Then, if in the meantime sheep are grazing, you bring with you a knife and carve wood toys for your children [as I was used to] you break all the molds,” she explains.
It all started with the 18 sheep owned by her grandmother. Now she has 400 Galician sheep, or ovella galega, a breed classified as in danger of extinction, grazing among chestnut trees (Castanea sativa), oak (Quercus robur), elm (Ulmus spp.) and hazelnut (Corylus spp.). The sheep eat lichens and bushes such as tojo (or gorse, Ulex europaeus), brezo (heather, Erica ciliaris), and xesta (Scotch broom, Cytisus scoparius).
This is a kind of agricultural system called agroforestry because it’s done among trees, which cool the surroundings, provide habitat for biodiversity, and promote humidity that helps crops like hay and grains grow even in dry conditions. The trees in an agroforestry system also sequester carbon from the atmosphere to cool the atmosphere. In this case, since livestock graze between the trees, it’s also called silvopasture, which is an ancestral farming system typical of Galicia.
Fernández’s farm is self-sufficient, producing sustainable forage for its sheep and selling meat and chestnuts. Every evening as she brings the sheep to graze and sits under the old chestnut trees, Fernández also writes poetry; designs clothes made with lichens and leaves and inspired by the Celtic mythologies deeply rooted in this area; and carves sculptures from tree branches to portray life through the lens of nature. In her handicrafts, one also finds stories of the meigas, witches whom local folklore ascribe to these woods. Her work is exhibited in a tiny museum in the center of the village.
“Being a shepherd inspires me, makes me feel free, that I’m part of nature,” Fernández says.
Climate crisis fans the flames
As Fernández experienced in her village, silvopasture systems deliver key ecosystem services. “Livestock reduce the risk of forest fires, eliminating [the] biomass of bushes and lichens from the ground,” says María Rosa Mosquera-Losada, president of the European Agroforestry Federation (EURAF), who’s in charge of the Department of Crop Production at the University of Santiago de Compostela (USC). “Silvopasture systems also provide an important carbon sink service: shepherding increases soil sequestration” of carbon, she says.
In Galicia, researchers observed a significant change in summer days over recent decades. “In the region, as in Spain, temperatures have risen by 1.7° [Celsius, or 3° Fahrenheit] since 1970. They are having great oscillations, with warm periods, followed by cold ones,” explains Dominic Royé, physical geography researcher at USC.
Many variables influence this, as Royé explained in a paper published in 2020. “Climate variability leads to years with more or less forest fire activity due to more favorable conditions. We must understand that a drought followed by heat waves greatly increases the risk,” Royé says. “The easterly winds in Portugal and Galicia are dry and warm in summer, dramatically increasing the risk of forest fires, and a few fires could burn huge areas.”
How’s the weather? ‘It depends’
North of here, the winding road passes through rivers and villages with few inhabitants nestled in hills colored by the violet flowers of heather, known locally as brezo. News of the forest fires tearing through the U.S. West Coast dominate the radio bulletins on the car stereo: tales of flames worsened by climate variability, a global issue that is part of the climate crisis.
“Depende [it depends], it’s a word that represents part of our character,” Mosquera-Losada says. “As Galician people we are well-known [as] undecided. Right now, depende is also our attitude to climate variability. We have more summer days but you’ll never know how the weather will be: extremely cold, rainy or windy.”