A Ray of Hope
It’s no easy matter for a community to maintain its resolve and keep alive its hope in the future when not just the livelihood of many of its households is under threat, but also the cultural heritage of a whole region. With the loss of five thousand Bordaleira sheep, along with infrastructures and pasture, in the fires that brought destruction to the eighteen municipalities making up the official demarcated Serra da Estrela region, on 15 October 2017, most cheese producers saw their whole way of life imperilled.
The shrinking numbers of milk producers over the past five years – with herds dwindling from 120 to 80 thousand heads of live sheep – was already cause enough for concern. With the fires, the situation became a national emergency, jeopardising the survival of the region’s traditional cheese-making industry. With the aim of helping to restore sustainability in the sector and saving one of Portugal’s top food products, as well as avoiding its disappearance from the shelves of its more than 500 shops around the country, the Jerónimo Martins Group decided to join forces with the Queijo da Serra herdsmen and producers.
Immediately after the fires, and over the months that followed, producers and the Group’s managers met to assess the scale of the losses and to identify the most pressing needs. “These past few (…) months have been particularly hard for the Serra da Estrela sheep farmers, that I have the honour of representing. It has therefore been enormously heartening to hear the news that the Jerónimo Martins Group has offered to help us recover from this terrible setback,” wrote the President of ANCOSE (the National Association of Serra da Estrela Sheep Breeders), Manuel Marques, in an Open Letter addressed to the nearly 32 thousand employees of Jerónimo Martins in Portugal.
The 50 thousand euros donated to ANCOSE are being used on two fronts: to buy fodder, water troughs and electric fences, and to set up the Serra da Estrela Sheep Breeding Centre, whose mission is to reestablish the sheep population. The first lambs were born at the Breeding Centre in March, and in April they were delivered into the care of the first 30 herdsmen worst hit by the fires.
Sebastião Figueiredo, a 32-year old shepherd who lost 25 heads of sheep, had a smile back on his face, and told Feed that the project “is minimising the fall-out from the fire and helping to keep me in business.” In total, 400 ewes will be shared out between the association’s members. There’s still a long way to go to re-establish the herd numbers wiped out last year – more than 5 thousand heads of sheep – but there’s now a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.