Feral horses are out of control in NSW’s largest national park. But managing this invasive species isn’t as simple as it should be. Why’s that the way it’s gotta be? (Little darlin’)
The GPS beeped our arrival as I stepped into a clearing. ‘Finally!’ I thought to myself, as I followed my friend towards the sound of trickling water.
We’d just spent the last three days — one more than we’d anticipated – breaking trail through thigh-deep snow, twisting snow gums and steep ascents. It was exhausting, but we’d finally arrived: we were deep inside Kosciuszko National Park. Here, no wider than a handspan, trickled the source of one of Australia’s greatest rivers – The Murray.
We’d come to the source to document the most wild and pristine section of the Murray River, which travels 60 kilometres through the Australian high country. But as we came closer, we realised we weren’t the only ones who’d been there. In front of us, not one metre out of the ground, the Murray River had been snuffed out.
What should’ve been delicate peat-moss, which can hold water throughout the year, instead resembled a mud-wrestling pit. The moss and small trickle of water had been marred with large hoof prints and droppings: as if someone had pulled a filthy paintbrush over the ground.
The culprit was obvious – feral horses. We’d spent the last three days following their churned-up trails, large stallion piles of poo, and swathes of grass eaten to a nub. Jason later remarked: ‘You could venture anywhere off the trail and find a horse track’.
These feral horses – often referred to as brumbies – have been the focus of fierce debate in the Snowy Mountains for many years. And as numbers in Kosciuszko National Park have swollen from 5000 to over 20,000 in the past five years, finding a solution has become even more important.
So, should feral horses remain in Kosciuszko National Park?
The History of Feral Horses
For many, the idea of horses galloping wild and free on high mountain plains is romantic. Banjo Patterson and his poem The Man from Snowy River are quick to people’s mind when talking about brumbies. But we mustn’t let these ideas – ones that we would like to be true – get in the way of reality. For starters, apart from Patterson’s poem, the brumby is only famous for being a pest.
Brumbies were first regarded as a problem as far back as the 1860s. Wild horse populations originating from abandoned horses were taking up grazing land and emptying watering holes used by stock.
It was so bad that by 1865, feral horse hunting had evolved into a full industry. Despite this, feral horse numbers continued to increase at the end of the First World War. With the mechanisation of agriculture, demand for horses dropped and excess horses were set loose. This issue continued into the 1940s and 1960s, with feral horses again threatening stock rearing on farms.
Today, we know the impact of feral horses is not just on graziers. The presence of horses in Australia’s Alpine National Parks threatens a uniquely Australian landscape; vegetation communities and animals that can be found nowhere else in the world.
How Wild Horses Impact the Australian Alpine
The issue with horses is that they are large, hard-hoofed animals known as ungulates. They’re completely foreign to Australia’s environment, especially the delicate soils, sphagnum bogs, and wetlands in the Australian Alps. These ecosystems aren’t equipped to deal with hard hooves in high numbers.
The impact of ungulates in the alps, particularly cattle, is already well-researched and understood, and saw the removal of grazing from Kosciuszko National Park in 1969, and in Victoria in 2005. The cattle would selectively graze low, soft, palatable shrubs, exposing the fragile soil beneath, which would then be compacted and churned up by the cattle’s hooves.
It was believed that with the removal of grazing in the Australian Alps National Parks, the high-country areas would start to rejuvenate. And they did. But over the years, horse numbers have increased unchecked, and the degradation along with it. The feral horse research today still utilises the research infrastructure that was used for the cattle.
Seeing the Damage with Exclusion Plots
Over the past few decades, a number of exclusion plots were established across the Australian Alps. The plots were designed to keep cattle and horses out and give a reflection of what the vegetation would look like without hard hooves and grazing.
We first came upon one of these exclusion plots at Cowombat Flat, which lies just below the source of the Murray. In a wide clearing, where the grass looked as if it was freshly mown, sat several plots along a creek-line. To me, this was the strongest evidence of how much horses were changing the Australian Alps.
On one side, there was a healthy flowing stream, with frog croaks emanating from the vegetation, and on the other – dead silence and ripped apart banks. Researchers have used these plots, and various other methods, to prove time and time again, that feral horses are destroying the values of Australia’s high country. They have been proven to heavily graze vegetation, cause pugging damage, compact and expose large areas of soil, and cause streambank erosion and collapse.
This damage is being seen all over Kosciuszko National Park at a scale so large it can be seen from space. The hardest hit of these areas are the riparian (riverbank) and wetland ecosystems, which are home to many threatened and endangered species endemic to the Australian Alps.
Photos by Jason Macqueen and the Fenner School of Environment & Society
Native Species Under Threat
The destruction of these habitats is contributing to the stress already placed on many species. Studies have highlighted that horses put at risk the following threatened species:
- The Northern Corroboree Frog
- The Mountain Pygmy-possum
- The Alpine Water Skink
- Stocky Galaxias
- Broad-toothed Rat
The damaging effects aren’t just felt in the mountains either. Delicate sphagnum bogs, like Jason and I saw at the source of the Murray, are important for the water security of the Murray River and its irrigation communities. In the Murray-Darling Basin, the alpine regions only account for around one percent of the catchment area. But the alps is responsible for 30 percent of water supply.
The sphagnum bogs in these alpine regions act as important sponges for this rainfall, releasing water slowly, throughout the year, even in some droughts. Without these bogs regulating streams, water rushes across the landscape, erodes streams, and water supply can become more irregular.
Australian Capital Territory
The ACT, at the northern end of the Snowy Mountains, currently has the most effective management strategy. Under its Namadgi National Park Feral Horse Management Plan 2007, feral horse numbers are primarily managed by trapping and euthanasia. This is where horses are attracted to trap yards with salt blocks, and are then euthanised. In the more remote and difficult terrain, aerial culling is also used, but trapping remains the preferred method.
The Victorian government works under a similar framework, but they instead focus on rehoming. Under the Alpine National Park – Feral Horse Action Plan 2018-2021, a feral horse can only be rehomed if horses are suitable for rehoming, are captured in areas where transport is safe and humane, and rehoming capacity is available.
Under the plan, an initial target of 1200 horses captured over three years was set, with 100 horses on the sensitive Bogong High Plains set to be removed as soon as possible. However, by the Plan’s own admission:
‘In the Eastern Alps, feral horses are well established and are considered beyond eradication using currently available control tools. It is likely that populations will persist in this area (including the Alpine National Park, adjacent Victorian state forests and adjacent NSW alpine areas), even under increased management.’
Rehoming might be seen as more humane, but if we want to actually protect sensitive areas, it shouldn’t be the primary strategy. And following the devastating summer of bushfires, the Victorian government now plan to introduce ground shooting as one of its control measures, which is already being used to manage feral pigs, deer and goats.
According to Andrew Cox, CEO of the Invasive Species Council, ‘When implemented by professionally trained shooters, ground shooting offers a more humane approach’ as it can ‘reduce the time to death and avoid undue stress on horses that may otherwise be trapped, handled and transported long distances.’
But all of this has been at a standstill since 2018, when a case filed by the Australian Brumby Alliance was brought against the Victorian Government in the Federal Court. In July, the court found in favour of the Victorian Government, rejecting the ABA’s claims that feral horses on the Bogong High Plains were genetically different from other horses and that horses could be beneficial to the alpine environment. And it found that Park’s Victoria were legally obligated to act in the interest of the park under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act.
The author and friends exploring the Murray River from the source. 60 kilometres of the Murray River travels through Kosciuszko National Park. | Photo by Jason Macqueen and the Fenner School of Environment & Society
New South Wales
Kosciuszko National Park in NSW is the largest conservation area in the Australian Alps, and is also the most impacted by feral horses. Despite this, in 2018 the NSW government passed the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Act which seeks to protect the invasive species. Since then, debate has been fierce.
Today, stakeholders on both sides keenly await the draft long-term wild horse heritage management plan, which is due to be released before the end of 2020. The plan has been advised by both a Scientific Advisory Panel and the Community Advisory Panel in an attempt to represent all stakeholders.
However, in the eyes of some researchers, aerial culling is the only effective strategy for controlling feral horses in Kosciuszko. The populations are just too large and the risks are too high for other methods. And for those concerned if the method is humane, ariel culling has been supported by the RSPCA and has been found to be more humane than ground shooting under the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy.
Aerial culling is known to be the most effective method for controlling feral horses – it’s sad, but if we let romantic notions hold sway against science then the entire Australian Alps is at stake. | Photo by @gfunk_
A common counterpoint to feral horse management, is ‘What about the damage from pigs and deer?’ And fair enough, they’re a problem in the Alpine National Parks. But, every other introduced pest, apart from feral horses, has a clear management plan. The only difference is that feral horses look better than feral pigs. But this doesn’t mean they cause any less damage. In fact, a study found that horses are by far the biggest destroyer of habitats: far worse than feral goats, rabbits, feral pigs and deer combined.
The Legacy of Black Summer
The 2019/2020 bushfires have left deep scars across Kosciuszko. However, feral horses have come away almost unscathed. They will most likely recover faster than many of the native species who have lost their homes and food sources.
This risk to native species led to the NSW Minister for Energy and the Environment, Matt Kean announcing that 4000 horses would be removed from the northern plains of Kosciuszko. This will be done using a variety of methods and will be coupled with a post-fire recount of numbers.
According to Professor David Lindenmayer, an ecologist from the Australian National University, tackling horse numbers is extremely important following the fires:
‘Now is the time you need to be really reducing the numbers, otherwise the damage will be astronomical.’
‘It’s a very special place and a very sensitive one – and even more sensitive when it’s been burnt.’
It’s these words which we must listen to. The knowledge of leading experts, of rigorously peer-reviewed research, of people who have worked in the Australian Alps National Parks for decades. We must not let our uniquely Australian ecosystems suffer for an idea of what is natural.
If horses are removed from Kosciuszko, they’re nowhere near becoming extinct. Tame horses will continue to be loved and cared for on properties across Australia, along with their heritage. But if they remain, we risk losing so much that is uniquely Australian. I think that’s worth facing reality for, don’t you?
Sign the petition to save Kosciuszko National Park from the impacts of feral horses.
Photo’s provided by the Fenner School of Environment & Society were captured for the project ‘Helping the Murray Sing’. The project, in conjunction with the ANU School of Music, will translate The Murray River’s data into a soundscape, giving the river an auditory fingerprint. This will also be combined with sights and other sounds from the river to create an interactive museum installation. For more information and updates on the project, head to its website.
Feature photo by Guy Williment