July 13, 2009 / 1:16 PM / in 8 years

Portugal town revives hilltop herds to save birds

CHAOS, Portugal (Reuters Life!) - One of the village goatherds has a university degree and the other runs an online shop in his spare time, but both say tending goats in Portugal’s Candeeiros mountains is for the birds.

The village, Chaos (pronounced sha-us), is reviving goat herding on the surrounding hills not so much for the meat or cheese, but to help save an endangered bird species, the red-billed chough.

“Traditional herding has moved to the valley below, to the abandoned agricultural lands. This changed the habitat of the chough, which basically disappeared here,” said Antonio Frazao, head of the Terra Cha cooperative and a park ranger in charge of the project, which also involves nature tourism.

Apart from wine production, agriculture in Portugal has been declining for years, with crop yields and animal productivity below the European Union average.

Without hungry goats to keep them in check, the mountain shrubs have grown too big for the birds of the crow family to forage in the undergrowth. Goat excrement also helped to breed the insects eaten by the black-feathered birds with long curved red beaks and red legs.

The last breeding pair close to Chaos was seen last year in the nearby Serra dos Candeeiros park area, about 120 km (74.56 miles) north of Lisbon and 20 km east from the Atlantic coast.

None have been sighted this year.

Red-billed choughs nest on cliffs in Europe and parts of Asia, but are now rare. In Portugal, their numbers have halved in the past few years, according to the project’s data.

“We haven’t seen the birds yet, but we still have to study a lot about them. For now it’s been a lot of work with the goats,” said one of the herders -- Sara Pereira, a svelte 27-year-old agronomic engineer from the university town of Coimbra.

She and 29-year-old avid outdoorsman and management student Rui Duque were hired this year from a long list of candidates to work in the highlands. The mountains are covered with a carpet of aromatic herbs like thyme and rosemary and offer dazzling views of the valley on one side and the coast on the other.

Their job is to tend, in turns, to a herd of 60 newly bought goats, which should grow to 150 by next year, monitor the birds and rare orchids growing in the area, doubling as guides for tourists on a new “Herder for a day” tour. The old goatherds, who moved downhill, come to help sometimes.

Organizers expect the project, which is sponsored by British mobile phone giant Vodafone, will eventually finance itself through tourism and organic cheese production.

Nature and adventure tourism has enjoyed steady demand despite the global economic crisis, Frazao said.

PASTORAL PARADISE IS HARD WORK TOO

“It’s cool to drive the herd and have this contact with an ancestral activity,” said Pereira, who would make a pastoral romance heroine if not for her T-shirt, jeans and running shoes. “It’s certainly great for a day, but it’s not just sun and fresh air. It’s hard work and after five days I get really tired.”

Duque, who looks like a backpacker sporting long hair under a baseball cap and dressed for mountain hiking, says this new form of herding as a career choice can be appealing.

“I see this as a thing of the future. Before, people turned herders out of necessity, earning peanuts. I‘m combining my love for the outdoors with something useful, and I‘m not abandoning the good things of civilization,” he said.

The two herders earn about 950 euros ($1,321) a month each, above the average salary of just over 700 euros in the Iberian country.

Despite an additional required effort, Duque drives the goats to the mountain pasture twice a day, to have the afternoon free so he can run his online shop of outdoor equipment.

“It’s impossible to live off just this Internet business now, so herding is a good addition. And a herder is his own boss, after all.”

Reporting by Andrei Khalip

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