Our her­itage: the fight to stop a brumby mas­sacre

Brumbies car­ried our dig­gers into bat­tle dur­ing World War I, praised for their hearts and courage. Now, they’re caught up in an­other war – this time for their own sur­vival, writes Beverley Had­graft.

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents - PHOTOGRA PHY BY CAROL HAN­COCK

In the crisp morn­ing air of the Snowy Moun­tains, wild brumbies qui­etly graze. A sud­den noise makes the lead mare jerk her head up war­ily, ready to lead her mob to safety – as well she might. There’s a war go­ing on up here and brumbies are in the cross­fire. Lit­er­ally.

The NSW Na­tional Parks and Wildlife Ser­vice has just re­leased a plan to re­duce the num­ber of wild horses in Kosciuszko Na­tional Park from an es­ti­mated 6000 to 3000 within five to 10 years. Its fi­nal ob­jec­tive is a herd of just 600 – a stun­ning 90 per cent cull. The fall­out has been fu­ri­ous.

At the fore­front of the cam­paign are those who nor­mally lead the charge to pro­tect our wildlife – en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists whose calls to erad­i­cate the horses will re­sult in the horses be­ing shot and their car­casses left to rot on the pas­tures they call home. Even worse is that, in their fer­vour to pro­tect na­tional parks from an­i­mals that have lived there for nearly 200 years, th­ese gree­nies won’t coun­te­nance the trial of a hu­mane op­tion – fer­til­ity con­trol – which would end the mares’ abil­ity to breed and pro­tect the en­vi­ron­ment cheaply and pain­lessly.

The plan has stirred up a hor­net’s nest in the Snowy Moun­tains and be­yond. The moun­tain men who have lived here for gen­er­a­tions grieve this ero­sion of their her­itage, while those who spend ev­ery spare cent re­hom­ing and re­train­ing the brumbies scram­ble for ev­i­dence that will pro­vide a re­prieve.

Those seen as anti-brumby have been threat­ened and snubbed. Bumper stick­ers urge, “Ground cull a gree­nie, save a Snowy brumby”. There are pe­ti­tions and meet­ings.

Con­ser­va­tion­ists, mean­while, stick to their brief to pro­tect our na­tional parks. The horses must go, they say. Kosciuszko con­tains plants that ex­ist nowhere else in the world, as well as many en­dan­gered an­i­mals. The brumbies are feral pests, equine wreck­ing balls for ev­ery­thing from mosses to wa­ter­ways.

Leisa Cald­well is a founder mem­ber of the Snowy Moun­tains Horse Rid­ers As­so­ci­a­tion. Her fam­ily has lived at the south­ern end of the Snowies, “along the steep, pine-clad ridges, as Banjo Pater­son says”, for five gen­er­a­tions.

She helped form the group af­ter pre­vi­ous plans of Parks man­age­ment stopped them rid­ing and brum­byrun­ning (pur­su­ing the brumbies on horse­back and catch­ing them by rop­ing) there. It was a shock, she says, done with no pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion. “Our her­itage has been hi­jacked.”

Leisa warned back then that if the brumby run­ners were kicked out, there would be prob­lems man­ag­ing the horse pop­u­la­tion in the parks. That, she says, is now the case and she is fu­ri­ous at claims that brumby run­ning is in­hu­mane. “Yet th­ese peo­ple sup­port aerial or ground shoot­ing? I take of­fence to that. We love horses. We’re the last peo­ple on earth who’d want to harm them.”

Leisa is first to con­cede brumbies shouldn’t be in the unique alpine ar­eas. “There’s nowhere else in Aus­tralia like it. But then Parks de­cided they needed a plan of man­age­ment for the lower alpine as well and they just got lower and lower. It’s spu­ri­ous to sug­gest brumbies are hav­ing per­ma­nent or se­ri­ous en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts there com­pared to bush­fire, floods and hu­man in­fra­struc­ture.”

Yet it’s not only en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues that con­cern Leisa. There are her­itage and cul­tural ones, too. “The moun­tain com­mu­nity has been kicked in the guts over and over,” she says. “They’ve had their cat­tle taken, their towns flooded for the Snowy Moun­tains Hy­dro Scheme and their his­tory de­stroyed. The last bit of his­tory to show they even

They’ve had their cat­tle taken, their towns flooded and his­tory de­stroyed.

ex­isted is the brumbies. If they go, what’s left?” Leisa says.

The en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists who have sat on steer­ing com­mit­tees along­side her don’t un­der­stand why she gets so emo­tional, how she’ll shoot feral pigs or deer, but ob­jects to shoot­ing horses.

“Our grand­fa­thers didn’t ride deers and pigs into war,” says Leisa. “Nor do they take part in Olympic Open­ing Cer­e­monies. No other an­i­mal on the planet has this in­ter­ac­tion with hu­mans.”

When po­lice need help nd­ing lost walk­ers, moun­tain­men can ride where they like. They know that park like the back of their hands. “Who will do that when we can’t?” Leisa says.

En­vi­ron­men­tal­ist Dianne Thomp­son, a spokesper­son for the ad­vo­cacy group Na­tional Parks As­so­ci­a­tion of NSW (not to be con­fused with the govern­ment body), holds no truck with Leisa’s con­cerns. “We don’t need horses gal­lop­ing over the park [search­ing for peo­ple],” she says. “We have drones.”

Dianne’s fa­ther was a drover and shearer. When she opened his let­ters, a pressed ower would fall out. She’s grown up lov­ing na­ture and was a vig­or­ous bush­walker. She has taken part in sev­eral horse man­age­ment con­sul­ta­tions for Kosciuszko Na­tional Park, but says that since the Guy Fawkes River Na­tional Park aerial cull in 2000, when horses were left to die in agony for days, “life has been very emo­tive and dif cult”.

“I’m 70 and I’ve been threat­ened, I’ve been bar­relled up in my car, I’ve had to get a pri­vate phone num­ber and I never al­low my pho­to­graph to be taken or it will end up on one of their [protest] Face­book sites,” she says. “You’d think we were living in the back blocks of the US in­stead of a civilised state.”

Even the horses give her grief. She had to put up bar­ri­cades to stop them tram­pling her camp­site on the last big trek she did there.

“We don’t want this to be ad­ver­sar­ial, but there are two sides who will never meet and in be­tween are the 80 per cent who don’t even re­alise that horses aren’t na­tive, and can’t imag­ine they’re do­ing dam­age,” she says. “We’re not pushy, we just want govern­ment to take re­spon­si­bil­ity. Horses should have been re­moved along with the cat­tle. They’re a big an­i­mal in a frag­ile area, in signi cant num­bers in nearly 50 per cent of the park.”

Dianne be­lieves the govern­ment has been “frozen into in­ep­ti­tude” be­cause of the vo­cal brumby ad­vo­cates.

“The Na­tional Park isn’t a farm,” she says. “The horses can still be looked at and en­joyed if they’re taken out. I can’t ac­cept they have cul­tural her­itage

Our grand­fa­thers didn’t ride deers and pigs into war. Nor do they take part in Olympic cer­e­monies.

value. It’s anath­ema to me to hear peo­ple carry on like that.”

The pub­lic has un­til the end of Au­gust to make sub­mis­sions on the horse man­age­ment plan and then the govern­ment will de­cide whether to go ahead. What if they de­cide against it?

“Well, it comes back to what is the tip­ping point,” Dianne says. “And I think we could be very close to that. The dam­age is ex­ten­sive, it’s not lit­tle patches – I’ve seen it for my­self. It’s been ex­ten­sively sci­enti cally doc­u­mented.”

For ev­ery ex­pert claim justifying a brumby cull, there is a counter ex­pert claim against (see right). No won­der Parks and Wildlife has con­ducted such an ex­haus­tive con­sul­ta­tion – 21,000 mem­bers of the pub­lic quizzed in fo­cus groups and meet­ings, re­ports from an in­de­pen­dent tech­ni­cal group of sci­en­tists, cul­tural her­itage ex­perts and hun­dreds of stake­hold­ers, plus acres and acres of sci­enti c re­search.

The cost was $460,000, ac­cord­ing to the NSW Of ce of En­vi­ron­ment and Her­itage, but the govern­ment knows Aus­tralians love their brumbies, es­pe­cially the Snowy River ones, im­mor­talised in lm and poetry, and even gal­lop­ing across our $10 note.

Kosciuszko Na­tional Park is the largest na­tional park in NSW and a UNESCO Bio­sphere Re­serve. With its clear cas­cad­ing streams, it’s the only true alpine zone in main­land Aus­tralia and home to 850 plants, in­clud­ing the rare Anemone But­ter­cup, and 300 an­i­mals, in­clud­ing the en­dan­gered pygmy pos­sum and broad-toothed rat.

It’s also at the head­wa­ters of the Mur­ray, Mur­rumbidgee and Snowy rivers. High-qual­ity wa­ter ows from here to the Mur­ray Dar­ling Basin, es­ti­mated to be worth $9.6 bil­lion a year to the Aus­tralian econ­omy.

Cli­mate change is af­fect­ing both wa­ter and wildlife, but so is ero­sion, some caused by feral an­i­mals.

Tom Bag­nat, the Di­rec­tor of Metropoli­tan and Moun­tains for Na­tional Parks and Wildlife Ser­vice, says it has a le­gal obli­ga­tion to pro­tect

Kosciuszko Na­tional Park and can’t back off horse man­age­ment. How­ever, he ac­cepts that there are cul­tural and en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues. “But we aren’t just pick­ing on horses. Over the past ve years, we’ve re­moved 934 deer, 1850 pigs, 846 goats, 251 cats, 2037 foxes and 1377 wild dogs,” he says. Rangers lay thou­sands of ki­los of bait for th­ese an­i­mals and no one cares. Re­mov­ing brumbies is “prickly”, he agrees, es­pe­cially Snowy Moun­tains brumbies.

The plan doesn’t pro­pose one sin­gle method. There will be a range: trap­ping and re­moval will be con­tin­ued, but added to it could be ground shoot­ing, mus­ter­ing and re­moval, and culling and some fenc­ing. Aerial shoot­ing, he says, will not be con­sid­ered. Since 2002, Tom says, 3000 horses have been re­moved at a cost of $1000 a head. Only 18 per cent were re­homed, the rest ended up in pet food. Re­moval has lim­i­ta­tions be­cause trucks can’t reach many ar­eas of Kosciuszko Na­tional Park. That, how­ever, means they can’t reach car­casses ei­ther, so shot horses will be left to rot. A 70-kilo­gram deer takes 11 weeks to break down, ac­cord­ing to the sci­en­tists’ re­port. How long would a horse take?

Tom doesn’t know. Nor does he yet have a plan for the car­casses.

“If we get the tick on this, we will be see­ing if there’s a com­mer­cial use, such as com­post­ing on site,” he says.

On the plus side, the plan in­cludes the in­tro­duc­tion of a sci­enti c panel to con­duct sur­veys not only on brumby num­bers, but on speci c im­pacts.

Yet if th­ese haven’t been done al­ready – and they were pro­posed in the 2008 horse man­age­ment plan – why the rush to re­duce num­bers now?

“We can hold our hands over our hearts and say there are im­pacts, and they’re in­creas­ing,” says Tom. “But we want to im­prove our method­ol­ogy. We ac­knowl­edge horses have a cul­tural and her­itage value, but that doesn’t mean we have to have 3000 or 6000. If we get it down to 600, we be­lieve we’re ac­knowl­edg­ing the her­itage value while still look­ing af­ter the nat­u­ral values of the re­serve.”

Madi­son Young is an en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tist and vice-pres­i­dent of the Hunter Val­ley Brumby As­so­ci­a­tion, which res­cues and re­homes Na­tional

Park brumbies. She’s hor­ri­fied at the thought of dead horses be­ing left to rot. “You’ll have an ex­plo­sion of dogs, cats, foxes and pigs. They’ll be out of con­trol!” she says.

She’s fu­ri­ous that shoot­ing on sight has been rated by the sci­en­tists’ group as more hu­mane than trans­port­ing to re­hom­ing. “They thought trans­port was stress­ful to the an­i­mal. When we trans­port, the max­i­mum is 10 horses with grass hay in the bot­tom. We have a cam­era in there and watch them eat­ing the whole way.”

While she agrees horses can cause dam­age, she in­sists that in the park “there is very lit­tle ev­i­dence of that.

“We of­ten get shown pic­tures of so-called horse dam­age and those of us that know horses and also know pigs, say, ‘That’s a pig wal­low. Horses don’t wal­low’, or ‘That’s a split hoof, horses don’t have split hoofs – pigs, deer and goats do.’ Th­ese horses have been there for 200 years. We have no idea if there’s any re­la­tion­ship be­tween, say, horses and in­sects that now rely on horse ma­nure and are then eaten by birds we love. It’s un­heard of to ex­tin­guish an an­i­mal when we have no idea what’s hap­pen­ing.”

Madi­son wants to see a proper risk as­sess­ment that in­cludes the so­cial and eco­nomic im­pli­ca­tions. “Th­ese brumbies have huge tourism value and it’s ex­tremely com­plex so­cially. The peo­ple who live there have a real con­nec­tion to th­ese horses.”

Dr David Ber­man, an ecol­o­gist and feral pest man­age­ment spe­cial­ist, agrees. The fact that those spe­cific horse stud­ies haven’t been done means that no one knows the op­ti­mum horse pop­u­la­tion for the park, he says.

“They can’t just pick what­ever num­ber they think is good,” he says. “They need to re­duce horse num­bers in some ar­eas, with de­tailed mon­i­tor­ing of plants and soils, and let them ex­pand in new ar­eas and do the same. That’s good science, but it’s un­think­able for en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists.”

Colleen O’Brien, vice-pres­i­dent of the Aus­tralian Brumby Al­liance, looks over­seas to Europe, where horses are be­ing rein­tro­duced to many wildlife ar­eas to pro­tect bio­di­ver­sity and re­plen­ish nat­u­ral spa­ces. Surely, she says, the Snowy Moun­tains brumbies must have sim­i­lar value.

Colleen de­votes her life to res­cu­ing brumbies and re­hom­ing them. On her Aus­tralian Brumby Chal­lenge, train­ers are given a wild brumby and, af­ter 150 days, they show what they’ve achieved. This year, the fi­nal will be in Novem­ber at Equi­tana, a Melbourne horse show. Af­ter­wards, ap­proved bid­ders get the chance to buy the an­i­mals.

“Brumbies are more dog-like than horse-like,” Colleen says. “We say they’re bred at na­ture’s tough­est stud. If you’re a silly high-en­ergy horse in the wild, you lose weight and then it snows and you’re out of the gene pool. If you’re quiet and so­cia­ble and sound, you sur­vive – and those genes make them spec­tac­u­lar do­mes­tic horses.”

Colleen agrees the horses should be man­aged. The 2003 bush­fires wrecked sphag­num moss beds, for in­stance, and to re­gen­er­ate they need no horses trot­ting over them. How­ever, she wouldn’t like to see num­bers drop be­low 4000 and cer­tainly not 600. It would only take an­other bush­fire and the pop­u­la­tion would be wiped out, and Parks has said horses wouldn’t be re­placed if that hap­pened.

She is also against ground shoot­ing, es­pe­cially of un­con­tained horses where it’s hard to guar­an­tee a swift kill, and can’t un­der­stand why fer­til­ity con­trol has been dis­counted. It’s been used for 32 years in Amer­ica (where brumbies are pro­tected) and she’s watched it ad­min­is­tered, eas­ily and sim­ply, with a dart gun con­trolled by a 72-year-old woman, sit­ting on a camp­ing chair with a ther­mos by her side. “It’s com­mu­nity funded, done over just six week­ends and is so low-stress the mare does noth­ing more than put her ears back.” Colleen’s been try­ing to get a trial in Aus­tralia, show­ing how cost-ef­fec­tive it is. “But Parks won’t do it be­cause it would mean leav­ing a herd in place for five years, and if they did that they’d be an­ni­hi­lated by the ex­treme greens.

“If we can keep the brumbies in around a third of the park, that still leaves two-thirds where you can have a horse-free ex­pe­ri­ence,” she says. Colleen used to take pho­tos of brumbies when she went into the Snowy Moun­tains. Now, she’s more likely to be on her hands and knees, tak­ing pic­tures of the veg­e­ta­tion.

The brumbies watch her, ears pricked forward in­quis­i­tively. They don’t know she’s try­ing to save their lives.

They need to re­duce horse num­bers in some ar­eas ... That’s good science.

Colleen O’Brien with one of her brumbies.

The NSW Na­tional Parks and Wildlife Ser­vice wants to re­duce the num­ber of brumbies from 6000 to 600.

A key is­sue is the dam­age caused by brumbies and other feral an­i­mals to the Kosciuszko Na­tional Park.

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