Alpine brumbies: destructive feral hoofed beasts or a heritage breed to protect?

Alpine brumbies: destructive feral hoofed beasts or a heritage breed to protect?

On the June long weekend, Corey Cleggett rode his horse Kaishi across the top of Long Plain in the Kosciuszko national park.

The country horse trainer saw about 100 brumbies grazing in small herds during a day-long ride. He noticed the areas where hard hooves had tramped river banks and made tracks through the grass, but said damage appeared minimal compared with an area ripped up by feral pigs that “looked like a bulldozer had been in”.

“I do get a little annoyed that people carry on so much about all the damage,” he said. “Humans need to look in the bloody mirror first.”

It’s difficult, sitting behind a horse’s ears, to see the changes the wild herds in Kosciuszko have wrought. The ordinary impacts horses have on pasture – cutting narrow tracks through grass, selective grazing, hoofprints on the soft dirt of a river bank – amount to severe damage in a critically endangered alpine landscape which did not evolve to cope with hoofed beasts.

Prof Jamie Pittock, an ecologist from the Australian National University, walked Long Plain with the federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, in December. The northern part of Long Plain has seen an influx of horses since the 2019-20 bushfires. They have cut paths through the sphagnum bogs by walking in to get water, causing the bogs to dry out and become vulnerable to bushfire. They have grazed on the fresh green shoots of snowgrass, disrupting the regrowth required for several endangered lizards and the broad-toothed rat who use its tussocks for shelter.

Ley, whose electorate of Farrer borders the high country, rode her horse across the high country as an 18-year-old. She told the National Press Club this month that “seeing the damage that feral horses have done to the park now makes me extremely angry”.

An aerial survey conducted in late 2020 estimated the feral horse population in the national park to be 14,380 – more than double the estimated population in 2016 when the NSW government proposed reducing the population from 6,000 to 600 through aerial culling.

Horse trainer Corey Cleggett rides through Long Plain in Kosciuszko national park on his horse Kaishi.

Last week Ley wrote to the NSW environment minister, Matt Kean, saying she planned to introduce regulation under federal environmental laws to protect the environmental heritage values of the park because the state was failing in its obligation to do so.

Kean welcomed the letter, and said he would release the long-awaited wild horse management plan for public consultation soon. But while there is mounting agreement about the need to drastically reduce horse numbers, the use of aerial shooting – previously proposed as the most efficient and humane way to effect a large cull – remains controversial.

“The plan will outline how we intend to protect the ecological values of the park by reducing the impact of wild horses while also acknowledging their heritage value,” Kean told Guardian Australia.

Andrew Cox, from the Invasive Species Council, says if the plan relies on trapping to reduce numbers, the state government will be “selling the national park down the tube”. Aerial shooting – carried out on feral horses in central and outback Australia – is the most humane and practical solution.

“[Humans] have created a problem,” he says. “To walk away from the problem is to walk away from everything else that lives in that park, everything else that park was established for.”

The NSW government has been fighting an internal battle about the brumbies for five years. In 2018 it passed legislation, driven by the Nationals leader, John Barilaro, to recognise brumbies as a heritage species, and developed a policy of trapping and rehoming as its preferred method – a method that ecologists and the pro-brumby lobby say cannot remove more than a few hundred horses a year.

If unchecked, the population will grow by about 20% a year – meaning 3,000 horses would have to be trapped and rehomed annually just to keep numbers steady at 14,000. That is how many horses have been trapped and removed from the park in the past 11 years.

Kean said 14,000 was “almost universally accepted as too many”.

In January even Barilaro admitted the numbers were too high, telling the Sydney Morning Herald that the government “must reduce the number of brumbies, whether it’s down to 600, 1,000, or 3,000”.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service trapped 642 horses between July 2020 and May 2021, of which 624 were taken by rehoming organisations. The parks service uses passive trapping, laying food in pens and closing the gates. It does not do mustering.

“The approach to trapping reflects a commitment to reducing horse numbers while maintaining the highest possible welfare standards,” it said. “Seeking homes for wild horses removed from the park is a priority. If there is insufficient demand for horses, those that cannot find a home go to a knackery.”

Of the 3,350 brumbies trapped in Kosciuszko between 1 July 2008 and 30 June 2020, 69% were either humanely euthanised on site or sent to slaughter.

In Victoria, brumby populations in alpine regions doubled to 5,000 between 2014 and 2019. A draft feral horse action plan released by the Victorian government in April suggested aerial shooting may be carried out “in exceptional circumstances, or if other methods cannot meet objectives”.

The aim of the Victorian plan is to eradicate horses from the Bogong High Plains – where there are about 110 – and to significantly reduce the population in the eastern Alps.

Australian Brumby Alliance president Jill Pickering says rehoming organisations cannot take on more than a few hundred a year.

The combined supply of horses from Kosciuszko, the Victorian Alps, and Barmah national park – where the Victorian government plans to reduce horse numbers in Barmah from 550 to 110 by 2023 through a combination of culling and rehoming – has created a glut, and there are not many trainers which have experience working with brumbies, Pickering says.

An aerial survey conducted in late 2020 estimated the feral horse population in the national park to be 14,380.

“It’s been fantastic the way everyone has stepped up but it can’t be sustained at this rate,” she says.

The rehoming groups are not set up to handle large-scale adoption programs. Cleggett applied to get a brumby last year and did not hear back.

“I tried to get a single one and didn’t get an email back from any of the groups I approached,” he says. “Yet if you turn around and say I want a truck load, apparently it’s a lot easier.”

Pickering and others are lobbying to have brumbies recognised as a heritage breed like native ponies in the British Isles where semi-wild herds are maintained and thinned for riding stock. Like many who support the brumbies, she is frustrated at having management suggestions dismissed by conservationists.

The conservationists, in turn, are frustrated by the pro-brumby lobby. Pittock says common proposals including using dart gun contraceptives as a humane way to control numbers were impractical because it would involve darting at least 3,500 individual mares a year, and inappropriate for the Australian landscape where feral horses fit in about as well as feral cats.

He says arguments that horses have any positive impact on the landscape are “utter scientific garbage” and that those advocating for brumbies have transplanted ideas from Europe.

“There might be the odd hoofprint where some poor frog in desperation lays some eggs, but that’s not primary habitat,” he says. “What we do know is that frog species such as the corroboree frogs are being driven to extinction by a combination of things that includes feral horses and fire.”

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