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.
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.