Those in search of natural beauty fear a land trampled under hoof
They’ve marched 560km through a contested landscape scorched by sun and strife, and today they shout it from the rooftop of Australia: Save Kosci! But is anyone listening? About 150 protesters will today gather on the summit of Mount Kosciuszko to call on the NSW government to scrap the controversial Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Act 2018; legislation they say is turning Kosciuszko National Park into a horse paddock. The Main Range was once the domain of summertime cattle grazing before stock was removed in the 1960s to ensure clean water for the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme water catchment. Rehabilitation of the cattle-damaged landscape took decades, and walkers say they want to ensure Australia’s most famous alpine national park doesn’t again suffer.
Canberra local Alan Laird began the walk in Sydney on November 3. “I’ve been using the park for bush walking and crosscountry skiing for over 40 years and hate to see the damage feral horses are doing,” he says. “It’s not a necessary situation.”
But the issue of how to manage the horses remains dangerously divisive. Laird says the walkers have been treated to generous hospitality along the way, but have also suffered abuse and intimidation, including a car swerving deliberately towards the group.
“If you feel strong about an issue you push it as hard as you can,” he says. “Some people push their views by denigrating the other side and some people use rational arguments.”
Scientists say there were more than 6000 feral horses in the park in 2014. The population is estimated to be increasing by up to 20 per cent a year. The legislation, introduced by Deputy Premier and Nationals leader John Barilaro, and dubbed the “Brumby Bill”, bans the shooting of feral horses but allows them to be trapped and transported to abattoirs. NSW Parks and Wildlife Service carries out aerial culling of feral deer and pigs: 140 animals were shot last month. Feral horses were recently declared a “key threatening process” by the NSW Threatened Species Scientific Committee, an independent committee appointed by the Environment Minister. Thirty-four native animal and plant species were found to be at risk from horses.
Says Reclaim Kosci campaign co-ordinator Alison Swain: “It’s very conflicting that the NSW government on one hand wants to have heritage-listed horses in the park and on the other hand is saying that horses are impacting on 34 endangered plant and animal species within that park.
“NSW has created a dangerous precedent for protecting a damaging feral animal within a national park and it’s not a good way to go.”
A Victoria-based pro-feral horse organisation yesterday lodged an application for an injunction to prevent Parks Victoria from removing more than 100 feral horses from Victoria’s Alpine National Park, citing cultural heritage grounds.
Australian Brumby Alliance president Jill Pickering says the arguments from Reclaim Kosci are absurd.
“The act is about retaining sustainable heritage brumby numbers within specific park areas,” she says. “They should stop hammering the public with their negative opinions and join with us to make the act work for all.”
The question of what to do with the brumbies shows no sign of going away and is set to become a hot topic at the NSW state election in March. The Labor Party has promised to repeal the brumby bill and return to an earlier plan of reducing horse numbers to 600 over 20 years.
Neither major party will return to aerial culling, the only control method scientists say has a realistic chance of working.
Above, wild brumbies at Racecourse Creek in Kosciuszko National Park, some of an estimated 6000 feral horses in the park, below right; conservationist James Fitzgerald and Reclaim Kosci campaign co-ordinator Alison Swain, below left