In the long run, grazing can help reduce wildfires

Last updated on Jun 14, 23

Posted on Jun 08, 23

2 min read

Wildfire danger hit home in a big way this week.

Smoke from wildfires many hundreds of kilometres away, in Quebec and northeastern Ontario, descended on us like a blanket on Tuesday. Outdoor air quality was reported to be among the worst in the world. The situation made outdoor activities challenging, if not downright dangerous.

Wednesday morning, Environment Canada predicted poor air quality would persist into the weekend. It warned that wildfire smoke can be harmful to your health, even at low concentrations, and urged that care be taken even inside, such as using an air purifier with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter in a room where you spend a lot of time.

Outdoors, Environment Canada was recommending N95 masks if you have respiratory issues.

This is such a dangerous and unfortunate way to start the summer we’ve all been waiting for. In anger and desperation, fingers are pointing to climate change as the culprit.

There’s truth in that accusation, in part. But wildfires are a natural phenomenon, and must be anticipated, now more than ever with the wild swings we’re seeing in the weather.

A key to preventing fires from starting in the first place is taking care in wooded areas. To lessen the chance of them spreading, whatever sources are helping fuel them need to be reduced as much as possible.

To that end, focus often falls on manually removing dead underbrush and ground cover in woods or forests. Of course, it’s not possible to take such measures in every square inch of remote, forested Canada.

And ironically, fires have a natural role in clearing out that underbrush. But they can’t be tolerated too close to urban areas.

Some efforts to keep fires at bay include creating buffer zones around vulnerable locales – villages, towns and cities, for example. Trees, or anything other than grass, might be eliminated in those areas, which brings in other environmental concerns.

But another approach is to use livestock – cattle primarily, as well as sheep and goats – to graze these buffer zones and consume what is destined to become combustible ground cover.

This kind of management can be used beyond buffer zones as well. Ontario had set its sights on developing more of a cattle industry in the North. Ruminant animals like cattle can thrive on grass, the main component of pasture, and as pasture is developed and grazed, it creates a buffer zone of its own.

At the same time, the animals naturally fertilize and replenish the grass growing beneath them. That grass helps sequester carbon, another issue related to climate change.

Agriculture is often accused of creating environmental and sustainability problems. But it’s time to change the focus on how it can be a fundamental part of the complex way towards responding to the increasingly volatile climate.

Farmers have as much at stake as the rest of us, maybe even more, when it comes to trying to reel in problems like wildfires or other environmental matters. Let’s involve them in solutions in a meaningful way.

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