All political parties have been well informed about the science behind feral horses in the Australian Alps. The peer-reviewed literature shows that:
feral horse impacts put multiple species at greater risk of extinction
streams and bogs are degraded, threatening water quality, and will require restoration
even small numbers of horses lead to cumulative environmental degradation
a range of high and low elevation areas are severely degraded by feral horses; it is not clear whether any areas can withstand horse impacts
rehoming and fertility control are not effective control methods when horses number in the thousands and are hard to reach
aerial culling is humane, effective, and cheaper than other methods.
But despite the clarity of recommendations emerging from research, political parties have taken a broad range of approaches.
The Liberal/National coalition has pledged to enact its Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Bill, which was passed by the state parliament last year and aims to “recognise the heritage value of sustainable wild horse populations within parts of Kosciuszko National Park”.
This legislation would ensure several thousand feral horses remain in the park, potentially compromising the conservation goals of the park’s management plan.
This month, Deputy Premier John Barilaro said the government would “immediately” reduce horse numbers by 50%, through trapping, rehoming, fertility control, and relocating horses to “less sensitive” areas. Although he appeared to endorse an ultimate population target of 600 feral horses in front of an audience that was receptive to that idea, under pressure from the pro-brumby lobby, he later clarified that the coalition would aim to keep 3,000-4,000 feral horses in Kosciuszko.
Labor, along with the Greens and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party, has pledged to repeal the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Bill if it wins the election, and has committed A$24 million to restore the national park.
Labor’s plan also mentions active management of feral horses in sensitive ecosystems, and ensuring large horse populations do not starve to death. It plans to achieve these two goals by trapping and rehoming brumbies. Labor also plans to keep a “smaller population” of feral horses in areas within the national park “where degradation is less critical”.
The NSW Greens has arguably the most evidence-based policy, aiming to reduce horse numbers by 90% in three years, with a longer-term goal of full eradication.
This means national parks would be managed for native Australian species. That is important in NSW, where only 10% of the state has been allocated to protected areas, well below international standards of 17%. They would achieve this reduction using all humane methods currently available, including trapping, rehoming, mustering, and ground-based and aerial shooting.
The Greens would also fund rehabilitation of damaged habitat, and has flagged substantial funding for conservation initiatives.
Shooters, Fishers and Farmers
The Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party supports immediate action to reduce feral horse numbers using humane methods, including ground shooting, but not aerial culling.
The party, which holds one lower house seat and has two upper house members, has announced no plans for restoration of the national park.
Animal Justice Party
The Animal Justice Party, which has just one upper house member in the parliament, has endorsed “non-lethal control measures” in areas that are clearly being degraded by feral horses. It says this should be achieved entirely using fertility control and relocation. The party has also described brumby culling proposals as “horrific” and called for urgent national legislation to protect them.
There is pressure from pro-brumby lobbyists to keep feral horse populations in Guy Fawkes, Barrington Tops, Oxley Wild Rivers, the Blue Mountains, and other NSW national parks. In Victoria, a pro-brumby pressure group will take Parks Victoria to the Federal court later this year to prevent removal of a small but damaging horse population on the Bogong High Plains in the Alpine National Park.
When NSW voters decide the fate of Kosciuszko National Park on Saturday, their verdict could have broader ramifications for protected areas throughout Australia.
The bill, which also proposes relocating horses within the park, or removal and domestication, intends to use fertility control for longer-term population control. But this simply isn’t feasible, and is unlikely to become so in the near future.
Immunocontraception has only been successfully used in smaller and more isolated populations (such as islands). Population modelling has estimated that over 50% of mares would need to be treated in KNP just to slow the rate of population increase within 2–5 years.
Although the precise number of horses in KNP is hotly debated, even at the lowest estimates almost 1,000 mares would need to be treated to have the desired impact on population growth – and it would still take 10–20 years before the population size was reduced substantially through natural mortality. And that is on the proviso that we could actually administer the vaccine to this number of mares.
Trapping enough horses across KNP (an area of about 700,000 hectares) would likely be impossible. Dart administration sounds intuitively appealing but is a complex process and will not be possible for large numbers of horses in difficult, mountainous terrain.
Staff must be extensively trained for licences before they can administer darts. More importantly, darting can only be safely performed within around 40 metres of a stationary horse, and with a clear line of vision. This must be done accurately and without causing ballistic injuries.
Injected animals must be marked (with dye, for example) so that they can be identified for booster shots as needed.
As demonstrated in a recent trial of fertility control darting for eastern grey kangaroos in the ACT, it is extremely challenging to manage all of these goals in the field. Helicopters can be used to dart animals, but this adds animal welfare impacts due to pursuit and lower levels of accuracy.
In other parts of the world where dart administration of immunocontraceptives has been successful, they have been applied to horses that are used to people, allowing staff to approach horses on foot. This is a very different situation to KNP.
Although it is possible to closely approach some horses in KNP, ongoing research has revealed that it is only possible to get within 200–500m of most horses in the larger populations.
Furthermore, it would be close to impossible to both identify and locate the same horses on multiple occasions, as required for booster vaccination injections. In more densely forested areas, it can be challenging to even see horses, let alone dart them.
There is no vehicle access to many parts of KNP where horses live, and long treks across challenging terrain would make attempts to locate all horses very labour-intensive. Furthermore, many areas of KNP are completely inaccessible in winter due to snow, making darting before the spring breeding season even more problematic.
What would we be vaccinating the horses with?
There’s also the question of what exactly the horses would be vaccinated with. GonaCon and PZP are not produced in commercial quantities, are not currently available in Australia and are not straightforward to import. Australian quarantine regulations may prevent the import of reagents derived from animals, such as conventional PZP which is derived from pig ovaries.
There are two alternative GnRH vaccines available in Australia. One has shown less effectiveness than required in a pilot trial and while the other is registered for use in domestic mares, it lasts a relatively short time and is prohibitively expensive.
Alternative fertility control options such as surgical sterilisation or intra-uterine devices have even more practical hurdles. For all of these reasons, a recent peer-reviewed study by two Australian reproductive experts concluded that current fertility control methods are not feasible for halting the population growth of wild horses in Australia.
Although some newer technologies are undergoing investigation, realistically it will be a long time before contraception for wild horses becomes an effective reality in Australia.
‘No-kill’ bill means slow starvation
Without a feasible method for sterilising horses, the newly proposed bill will mean population control is mainly through food limitation.
While “no kill” is seemingly more compassionate, it may ultimately and unintentionally be crueller.
As horse populations reach the carrying capacity of their habitats, they become malnourished and their fertility declines. Horses in very poor condition will not produce foals. When malnutrition persists, many horses will die young and many will die slowly.
This was dramatically demonstrated four years ago, when researchers discovered emaciated brumbies in the Snowy Mountains cannibalising their fellows and more emerging research is further confirming that extreme malnutrition is ongoing in parts of KNP.
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.
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.
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.
Victoria’s new draft feral horse management plan, released on the last working day before Christmas, will be open for comment until February 2. But will it protect the Alpine National Park? The answers are yes on the Bogong High Plains, and no in the eastern Alps.
The government deserves congratulations for planning to remove all horses from the most sensitive alpine areas around Falls Creek by 2020. These areas of the Bogong High Plains have fewer than 100 horses, but also rare snow-patch and bog communities that are extremely vulnerable.
But elsewhere, the goal of removing 400 horses a year from the eastern Alps doesn’t seem to go far enough. And by refusing to countenance the idea of culling, the state government is passing up the only realistic chance of getting feral horse numbers under control.
The bulk of the plan provides grounds for cautious optimism. It acknowledges that feral horses threaten a range of native mammals, frogs and lizards, as well as displacing kangaroos and wallabies. Horses have enormous impacts on vegetation in alpine bogs and streams, and in many other ecosystems too.
The plan also makes clear that reducing horse numbers is a legal requirement. Victoria’s Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988 lists “degradation and loss of habitats caused by feral horses” as a threatening process. The Victorian National Parks Act 1975 calls for “exotic species” such as horses to be exterminated or controlled within national parks.
The plan also sets a realistic time frame for review (annual reviews and major review after three years), and suggests that management plans will be altered if adequate environmental protection is not achieved. All of this is extremely promising, suggesting the state government is genuinely interested in delivering tangible environmental benefits.
But while the aspirations are good, the details present some problems. The draft plan promises to “explore all possible control options” to deliver a low horse population in the eastern Alps.
But the proposed reliance on trapping and removal, rather than culling, suggests the government is reluctant to enter what would be a tough debate against the often vocal pro-brumby lobby groups. This reluctance is to the detriment of our native species and apparently at odds with legislation.
The problem is that the New South Wales government has already tried trapping and removing horses in Kosciuszko National Park, and it hasn’t worked. Horses have continued to spread northward onto the main range, where environmentally sensitive alpine tarn and snow-patch communities occur.
It is unclear whether Victoria’s “aspirational goal” of removing 400 horses each year over three years will actually be enough to reduce horse numbers, or even to stabilise them. The report mentions modelling showing that the population can be stabilised by taking 200 horses per year, and that it would start to decline if 400 were taken per year.
But none of this modelling is published, so it can’t be evaluated in detail. And simple calculations suggest that these figures are incredibly optimistic.
The report says there were 2,350 horses in the eastern Victorian Alps in 2014. Horse populations can increase at up to 20% per year, so by now there could be more than 4,000 feral horses.
This means that even if the government does manage to remove the full quota of 400 horses each year, it would only take a 10% population growth rate for the numbers to keep rising. At a rate of 20%, there could be well over 5,000 horses by 2020, even with trapping and removal.
Based on this rough calculation, the plan needs to eradicate many more horses. The draft plan claims that feral horses in the eastern Alps are “well established and are considered beyond eradication using currently available control tools”. Yet this claim ignores aerial culling, which is the cheapest, most effective, and most ethical way to reduce feral horse numbers.
Highly trained sharp-shooters and helicopter pilot teams can destroy more than 50 horses per day (based on previous culls in NSW, in which three teams of three people destroyed 606 horses over three days). Three teams could solve the feral horse problem in the Victorian alpine country in a month, and at lower cost.
It cost taxpayers more than A$1,000 for each horse trapped and removed from Kosciuszko National Park. Using the NSW cull as a guide to the resources required, and assuming A$300 per day per person, and A$10,000 per day per helicopter, it might have cost around A$150 per horse using aerial culling. That’s roughly 15% of the cost of trapping and removal.
Despite the risks to wildlife canvassed in the draft plan, and similar reports from NSW, there is no peer-reviewed research that defines the threats to native animals. A revised plan must include research to understand both the impacts of feral horses on native animal populations and their welfare.
The debate over culling horses typically ignores the unseen suffering that horses cause to native animals. Quantifying that suffering will be crucial for making informed decisions around feral horse management.
It is great that we have a plan for managing horses in the Victorian Alpine National Park – albeit one that seems unlikely to work in the eastern Alps. But the Victorian government needs to show courage and leadership on the issue of culling feral horses. Our alpine natural heritage will continue to decline until horses are taken out of our national parks, and that will only happen when managers can include culling among their suite of management tools.
In NSW, the feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park are growing in number, and doing real damage to Australia’s highest mountains. Hopefully both states can take back the reins of feral horse management from single-issue lobby groups and exercise some real control over their feral horses.
I am walking quietly through the forest. As I reach the edge of the trees there is a snort and a staccato of hoofbeats, and four horses materialise only metres in front of me: a foal, two mares and a dark stallion. The stallion, ears pricked, tosses his head and prances forward. As I crouch to pick up a branch, the stallion wheels and gallops off with the group. They hurdle an old stock fence, and almost as soon as their hoofs touch down, another big grey stallion comes towards them over the hill.
The next minutes are completely mesmerising. The two stallions fight, 50 metres from me. Dust hangs in the air around them, their screams echo off the hills, the impact of their hoof strikes reverberates in my belly. They rear, scream; snake heads out to bite, whirl and kick. Eventually, bleeding and bruised, the dark stallion breaks and runs. The grey makes a show of chasing, then canters back to the mares, arching his neck, prancing with lifted tail.
This is one of many times I have seen horses, called brumbies in Australia, in the mountains. While cross-country skiing in the south I have watched them in the snow – ragged manes flying, galloping through a mist of ice crystals – and many times while driving and bushwalking in both the north and south of Kosciuszko National Park. I have also watched them cantering in clouds of dust in central Australia, and grazing in the swamps of Kakadu. Each of these wild horse encounters has been deeply visceral and emotional, elemental expressions of life in dramatic and beautiful landscapes.
Horses are large, powerful and charismatic animals, and humans have ancient connections to them. Wild horses are dominant among the 13 species painted on the caves of Chauvet in France 30,000 years ago, and while there continues to be debate, archaeologists suggest evidence for horse domestication is at least 5,500 years old. And like the oldest human-animal relationship outside hunting – with dogs – the horse relationship is unique because we now mostly do not eat this animal.
Like dogs, horses now occur on every continent except Antarctica, and humans have been the primary agent for their dispersal. In North America, where the first true horses evolved and then died out, they were reintroduced by Columbus in 1493. Horses are the most recent of the main species humans domesticated, and the least different (with cats) from their wild counterparts.
Australia has the largest wild horse herd in the world, maybe 400,000 or more horses, spread across nearly every bioregion from the tropical north to the arid centre to the alpine areas. That sounds like a dramatically large number, but Australia also has around one million domestic horses, about 100 million cattle and sheep, maybe 20 million feral pigs and 25 million kangaroos. But the presence of wild horses here is deeply controversial.
Six thousand of these horses are in Kosciuszko National Park. Ongoing controversy around these wild horses encompasses debate about their impact and their cultural meaning. There is very little systematic research and a large amount of emotive and anecdotal argument, from both sides. There is circularity and self-referencing in government wild horse management plans, very little reference to studies from Australia and almost no peer-reviewed research on horse impacts in the Snowy Mountains, despite decades of argument that they cause environmental degradation.
And Kosciuszko is right next to Canberra and the Australian Capital Territory, which has the highest per capita horse-ownership of anywhere in Australia. Several enterprises run horse-trekking trips into the Snowy Mountains, often interacting with brumbies. The Dalgety and Corryong annual shows on the boundaries of the park highlight horse skills, including catching and gentling brumbies. In many places mountain cattle properties are increasingly using horses instead of motorbikes to handle stock.
The Kosciuszko wild horses are also tangled within the embedded idiosyncrasies and contradictions of the largest national park in New South Wales. Here there are protected populations of two species of invasive fish (brown and rainbow trout) that are demonstrably responsible for local extinctions of native fish and frog species; a gigantic hydro-electric scheme with dominant infrastructure across large areas of the park; and expanding ski resorts where it is possible to buy lodges. Much of the landscape that is now part of the park has a long history of summer grazing by sheep and cattle, with stockworkers’ huts scattered across the high country. This “wilderness” has been home to Aboriginal people for millennia, as well as well-known grazing grounds for more than a century.
These complexities and contradictions reflect our often unconscious modern propensity for hubris: we insist we are in charge of what happens on the planet, including in its “wild” places and “wild” species. Terms like “land management”, “natural resource management”, and “conservation management”, all reflect this assumption of superiority and control.
The United States has similar controversies over the management of mustangs across large areas of the west. New Zealand has the Kaimanawa horses, a special and isolated herd on army land. In both of those countries, as in Australia, there is a unique history of horse interactions with Indigenous communities. The great Native American horse cultures are well known and extraordinary, as Indians had no introduction to equestrian skills from the Spanish invaders, they learnt extremely quickly from scratch.
The first horses in New Zealand were a gift to Maori communities from missionary Samuel Marsden in 1814, and a Waitangi Tribunal Claim has been brought to protect the Kaimanawa horses as Maori taonga (treasures). Aboriginal stockmen and stockwomen were the mainstay of the pastoral industry all over Australia until the equal wage ruling of 1968 resulted in the wholesale expulsion of Aboriginal stockworkers in north and central Australia.
Peter Mitchell’s recent book Horse Nations uses that term to describe the people-animal relationship in certain Indigenous communities. Both Native American and Aboriginal cosmologies often place animals including horses, as their own “nations”, with whom they have a responsibility to respectfully interact.
The wild horses of the Australian Alps are arguably the strongest cultural icons. The enduring legacy of The Man from Snowy River, both the iconic Banjo Paterson poem and the 1980s film, but also the Silver Brumby series of novels by Elyne Mitchell, still in print after nearly 70 years, idealise the strength, beauty and spirit of wild mountain horses. At least one source suggests that “the man” from Paterson’s poem was in fact a young Aboriginal rider.
This is not at all implausible – there is much documentation, as well as strong oral histories, of Aboriginal men and women working stock on horseback across the Snowy Mountains. The Aboriginal mountain missions at Brungle and Delegate both have many stories of earlier generations working as stock riders and also mustering wild mountain horses. David Dixon, Ngarigo elder, says
Our old people were animal lovers. They would have had great respect for these powerful horse spirits. Our people have always been accepting of visitors to our lands and quite capable of adapting to change so that our visitors can also belong, and have their place.
While the iconic figure of the cowboy and stockman is masculine, amongst Aboriginal stockworkers women and girls were likely as common as men and boys. In contemporary times, women far outnumber men in equestrian participation, and brumby defenders are equally represented by men and women. Four Australian horsewomen generously shared their knowledge and skills in the research that backgrounds this essay.
In the mid 1970s, I worked as a ranger in Kosciuszko National Park. In those days rangering was a seat-of-the-pants enterprise: we used to buy at least part of our uniforms out of our own money because the issued items were so inadequate, we taught ourselves to cross-country ski, we drank socially with the brumby-runners and other people from the surrounding rural communities.
In many places rangers were and are intimately part of the community, not seen as “public servants”. There is a complex and interesting relationship between university-educated national parks staff and local rural workers with deeply embodied knowledge and skills, with rangers acknowledging that they need the skills of these locals to carry out much animal-related work in the parks, including trapping and mustering wild horses. Recent proposals to helicopter shoot large numbers of wild horses in Kosciuszko would potentially sever this link. Helicopter shooting requires specific marksmanship skills not common in rural communities.
While we debate how to reduce our wild horse numbers, other countries are working to re-establish wild horse herds in Europe and Asia. It is often argued that domestication saved horses (and many other species) from extinction, aiding their establishment all over the planet while their wild ancestors diminished or disappeared. Creating populations of newly wild species is termed both “rewilding’ and ”de-domestication“, and there are numerous and increasing examples around the world. Some of these proposals include the reestablishment of species long extinct, or their ecological equivalents.
In the period increasingly accepted as the Anthropocene, species are both declining and flourishing. Domesticated species have been moved all over the world; other introduced species flourish in new landscapes, and many of these are escaped or released domesticates. In the oceans, as large predators have declined all the cephalopods (octopus, squid and cuttlefish) are increasing. Highly specialised species that evolved on isolated islands have declined precipitously, while generalist species are flourishing.
Global conservation management attempts to work against both of these trends: we attempt to suppress populations of flourishing species, while supporting or increasing populations of declining ones, including through translocations and captive breeding programs. These activities call into question the nature of nature in the 21st century: what is the “wild” in all this management and manipulation?
In these questions, the lives and cosmologies of Indigenous peoples, and the lives of other species, offer us serious teachings. The agency and intelligence of animals, the increasing discoveries of distinct cultures amongst animal populations, the agency of planetary systems in continually reorganising around changing inputs, all stand against the modern human insistence on control, stability and stasis.
While hiking mountain grasslands looking for wild horse bands, I have several times come across horse skeletons whitening in the sunlight, their energy and power transmuted back into the source from which new lives will spring. In a world where human societies are increasingly narcissistic, where our dominant concern is ourselves, recognising the agency and intelligence of other species can be deeply humbling.
Perhaps our task is to harmonise ourselves with these old and new environments, not continually attempt to “manage” them into some other state that we in our hubris think is more desirable, whether ecologically, economically or culturally.
Thanks to Adrienne Corradini, Jen Owens, Blaire Carlon and Tonia Gray for improving my understanding of horse and brumby issues.