Victoria’s new feral horse plan could actually protect the high country. NSW’s method remains cruel and ineffective


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Don Driscoll, Deakin UniversityFeral horses are a catastrophic problem for the environment, particularly in the high country that crosses the New South Wales and Victoria border. To deal with this growing issue, the Victorian government has released a draft feral horse action plan, which is open for comment until April 23.

It comes after Victoria’s old action plan from 2018 proved ineffective, with feral horse numbers increasing in the most recent counts in 2019. This is similar to New South Wales’ current performance, where feral horses are legally protected and numbers are essentially unmanaged.

This new Victorian plan has flaws, but it’s still likely to perform better than the old plan (and the very low benchmark set by NSW), as it generally aims to deploy evidence-based management of national parks.

As Victoria gets on top of its feral horse problem, NSW will be left further behind with a degrading environment and rising costs of horse management.

The feral horse threat

Feral horses degrade ecosystems and threaten native Australian species with their heavy trampling and excessive grazing. They damage waterways and streamside vegetation which, in turn, threatens species that live in and alongside the streams, such as the alpine spiny crayfish, the alpine water skink and the Tooarrana broad-toothed rat. All of these are threatened species.

Damage from feral horses could worsen as ecosystems recover from the extensive 2019-20 eastern Australian bushfires. Horse grazing could delay animals’ habitat recovery and horse trampling could exacerbate stream degradation after fires.

In fact, there are 24 species that need protection from feral horses after the fires, as identified by the Australian government’s wildlife and threatened species bushfire recovery expert panel in September.

All of this ecosystem destruction translates into substantial economic costs. Frontier Economics released a report in January this year showing the potential benefits of horse control in Kosciuszko National Park was A$19-50 million per year. The benefits accrue through improved recreational opportunities, improved water quality and reduced car crashes involving feral horses.

In contrast, horse control could cost as little as A$1 million per year and up to $71 million, depending on the methods used. Frontier Economics concluded the costs that are incurred by keeping feral horses far outweigh the cost of eradication.

Alpine water skink
Alpine water skinks are among the vulnerable native species threatened by feral horses.
DEPI/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Victoria’s new feral horse plan

The draft Victorian feral horse action plan aims to:

  1. remove isolated populations on the Bogong High Plains within three years and prevent new populations from establishing
  2. contain and reduce feral horses in the eastern Alps by removing 500 horses in the first year
  3. use the most humane, safe and effective horse control methods.

The first aim makes complete sense. Removing small populations will always be more humane, cheaper and better for the environment than leaving them uncontrolled.

The second aim is perplexing. Based on 2019 surveys, the draft action plan says there are approximately 5,000 horses in the eastern Alps and the population is growing at 15% per year. If the government continues to remove 500 horses per year after the first year, it could see the population rise to more than 9,000 over ten years, despite culling 5,000 horses in that time.




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Double trouble as feral horse numbers gallop past 25,000 in the Australian Alps


In contrast, removing 2,000 horses per year could see the population controlled within three years. Reducing horse numbers rapidly results in the fewest horses having to be culled in the long term.

The third aim of the Victorian draft action plan gives appropriate and strong emphasis to animal welfare. Controlling horse numbers can be morally challenging, and requires a clear understanding of the trade-offs.

Without horse control, native animals are killed when their habitat is destroyed, unique Australian ecosystems are degraded, horses themselves starve or die of thirst in droughts, and the economic costs of inaction escalate. To avoid these costs, horse numbers must be reduced by culling.

This is the grim reality, but with careful attention to animal welfare, the draft strategy will ensure horse control is managed humanely, with control methods based on evidence rather than hyperbole.

Money wasting in NSW

Victoria’s plan is in stark contrast to the NSW government’s approach. In 2018, the NSW government passed the so-called “brumby bill”, which protects feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park.




Read more:
Passing the brumby bill is a backward step for environmental protection in Australia


The current method of control in NSW is to capture the horses and transport them to an abattoir if they cannot be re-homed. But evidence shows culling has fewer animal welfare concerns than this method.

And in the latest round of money-wasting horse management, the NSW government trapped 574 horses over the past year, but released 192 females and foals back into the park. If the program is aimed at reducing horse numbers, releasing the most fertile animals back into the population is counter-productive.

Regenerating plants and burnt trees in fire-damaged alpine region
Feral horses are exacerbating the damage from recent bushfires in the High Country.
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What’s more, removing 300-400 horses per year has little impact on overall numbers. There are around 14,000 horses in Kosciuszko National Park, with a growth rate of 23% per year. This means more than 3,000 horses must be removed just to prevent the population from getting bigger.

The high country without feral horses

If the Victorian draft plan can be improved to invest in rapid horse reduction and ecosystem restoration, we can expect to see quagmires created by trampling horses return to functioning ecosystems and the recovery of threatened species.

Stream banks can be stabilised and then dense grass tussocks and sedges will return, creating homes for threatened skinks, crayfish and the Tooarrana broad-toothed rat.

While Kosciuszko’s alpine ecosystems continue to decline under the NSW government’s political impasse, the Victorian Alps will become the favoured destination for tourists who want to see Australia’s nature thriving when they visit national parks.




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The Conversation


Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

NSW’s no-cull brumby bill will consign feral horses to an even crueller fate



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Research suggests there is no “safe number” of brumbies that will avoid harm to mountain ecosystems.
Jimmyvanderwall/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Don Driscoll, Deakin University

New South Wales’ proposed brumby legislation – which abandons plans to cull feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park – is a dangerously reckless policy that will escalate environmental impacts, escalate costs, and put horses at risk of extreme suffering.

The New South Wales’ Deputy Premier John Barilaro was reported as saying the cultural significance of the brumbies needed to be recognised.

But the evidence regarding feral horse (brumby) impacts on the environment in the Australian alps makes it clear that large numbers of feral horses are incompatible with maintaining the ecological values of Kosciuszko National Park.




Read more:
Without culling, Victoria’s feral horse plan looks set to fail


In a letter to the then premier Mike Baird in 2016, I and 40 other ecologists noted that feral horses have well documented impacts on streams and catchments:

Feral horses damage waterways, degrade soil, spread weeds and alter vegetation. These changes are likely to have negative impacts on native fauna.

Reports to both the Victorian and NSW governments have expressed concern over the impact on threatened species unless horses are culled. In NSW, horses directly destroy the habitat of already threatened species, including two species of critically endangered corroboree frogs, the critically endangered smoky mouse, endangered reptiles like the alpine she-oak skink and Guthega skink, and several plant species.

In its report, Parks Victoria suggested that native mammals such as wallabies and kangaroos are also out-competed and driven away by feral horses.

The threat posed by feral horses to native species and communities is so great that the NSW Threatened Species Scientific Committee has released a preliminary determination to list feral horses as a key threatening process. This report demonstrates that feral horses have well established environmental impacts and that action to reduce this threat is now urgent.

What’s more, there may be no “safe level” of feral horse numbers, below which the environment can cope with the damage. In a new report for the Victorian government, the impacts of feral horses on the Bogong High Plains was found to be cumulative, meaning that the damage caused by even a small number of horses accumulates over time, because the rate of recovery in alpine conditions is extremely slow.

Horse-free zones

Contrary to the “brumby bill” which would leave thousands of feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park, and contrary to the draft management plan that would reduce feral horses down to 600 over 20 years, to prevent horse damage, all of the horses must be removed.

Removing all of the feral horses from Kosciuszko National Park is also a value judgement. NSW sets aside only 9.2% of its land in protected areas. That’s less than 10% where nature conservation has priority, and more than 90% where people and our livestock and crops take precedence. This is already an extreme compromise, and does not even reach international targets under the Convention on Biological Diversity to have 17% of land area in protected areas.

The brumby bill will worsen this already below-par compromise by reneging on commitments to protect Australian native species, and transforming our national park into a playground for escaped exotic livestock.

The bill proposes to move horses from sensitive areas into less sensitive parts of the national park. But this is likely to fail, for two reasons. First, there is no clear way that this could be achieved without great cost and horse suffering.

Trapping horses has been experimented with since 2008, with, on average, 450 horses removed from Kosciuszko each year, at a cost of more than A$1,000 per horse. This was from open woodland habitat with good road access. But many of the most sensitive environments are in the least accessible areas, such as the main Kosciuszko range.

Without culling, it is not clear how parks staff could remove horses from these areas. At best, it would be expensive because it would be so labour-intensive. It would require new infrastructure in remote areas (which is undesirable for several reasons), and could require mustering with helicopters, also very costly. Mustering, trapping and trucking horses have serious animal welfare concerns, making them a crueller alternative than culling.

Second, moving more horses into areas that are already overrun by these quadrupeds places the horse population at risk of ecological collapse. Horse populations can increase at 20% or more every year. There were 6,000 horses in Kosciuszko National Park in 2014, so there could be more than twice that number by now.

By moving horses from one part of the park to another, the brumby bill will inevitably lead to unprecedented horse densities relative to the food available. There would be a real risk of mass horse starvation. By ignoring these basic ecological processes, the bill is likely to preside over more horse suffering than would be caused by a cull.




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The grim story of the Snowy Mountains’ cannibal horses


The proposed legislation is bad for horses, disastrous for the environment and, if relocations are actually implemented, extremely expensive. There are less cruel, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly solutions to this problem. Cull the horses in the national park (the least cruel of the range of viable methods), constrain brumby herds to the many private properties around the park to foster innovation in ecotourism, and invest in other environmentally friendly cultural activities to celebrate brumby culture, such as horse events outside the park, signs such as those around Victoria’s alpine huts, sculptures, poetry and movies.

This is the win-win solution we should be aiming for, not the reckless version on the table at the moment.


The ConversationThis article was amended on May 22, 2018, to clarify that the brumby population in Kosciuszko National Park was 6,000 in 2014, not 2016 as previously stated.

Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.