Feral horse myths and misconceptions – NSW policy out of control

Feral Herald |

It sounds like a dystopian dream – feral horses legally protected in Australia’s iconic alpine national park, prioritised over native species on the verge of extinction.

Yet, as of June 2018, this is the law in NSW.

In this fraught and highly contested area of feral animal management, evidence, political convention and facts have been left behind.

Deputy Premier John Barilaro has taken over management of Kosciuszko National Park, gazumping an exhaustive two-year public consultation process that settled on a compromise of reducing feral horses in the park from about 6000 to 600 over 20 years.

Barilaro, who is also the National Party member for Monaro (wherein lies Kosciuszko National Park), didn’t seem to like what the broader public was willing to accept. He rolled his own environment minister, Gabrielle Upton, upsetting the long-established order in NSW Liberal/National coalition governments that leaves national park management to the Liberals, to introduce a bill that protects ‘heritage’ horses in the park ahead of native species.

The legend apparently inspiring Barilaro’s move – The Man from Snowy River, a famous 1890 Banjo Paterson yarn about men chasing an escaped racehorse that joins a herd of feral horses – is a fiction, most probably set along the reaches of the Snowy River close to the NSW and Victorian border. At the time, feral horses, mostly escaped from cattle graziers, numbered just a few hundred in the high country.

Thanks to locals releasing horses and a lack of control, horse numbers grew. The latest credible aerial count, in 2014, estimated a population of 9520 horses in the Victorian and NSW alps, with about 6150 in Kosciuszko National Park.[1] Since then, numbers have risen further.

A solution unable to slow growing horse numbers

The new government policy is a solution concocted by horse advocates that will hamper control efforts, resulting in growing horse numbers and failing to stop damage to the exceptional natural values of the park. Threatened species and ecological communities including the corroboree frog, smoky mouse, anemone buttercup and endangered peatlands and swamps are all at risk.

In the media release announcing the proposed new legislation in May, Barilaro claimed the bill will ban any form of lethal control of feral horses, including aerial and ground shooting as well as on-site euthanasia after trapping. He reiterated this in his second reading speech to the NSW Parliament introducing the bill when he said:

“Lethal culling of brumbies will not occur… This bill will end the uncertainty as to whether brumbies will be shot: They will not be shot.”

This is not true. The new law is silent on this issue. In a meeting just before the legislation was passed, the Invasive Species Council was told by the environment minister that all control options except aerial shooting remain on the table.

If lethal control was not permitted, there would be no feasible way to prevent horse numbers from rising. Fertility control on this scale is not feasible.[2] Trapping, the main control tool used since 2003, has also been shown to be ineffective at reducing total horse numbers.

Trapping over the past 14 years removed an average 227 horses a year and a maximum of 658 (in 2011–12). As the review of the 2008 horse management plan says:

“…the trapping and removal program is having little impact in meeting the objective of reducing wild horse populations and subsequent impacts in these areas.”

Where regular trapping has occurred, numbers have increased.[3] Trapping is constrained by winter road closures, vandalism and conflict with summer park visitors. It can only occur in areas accessible to vehicles. At current population levels and a population growth rate of around 20% a year (under good conditions), well over 1000 horses need to be removed each year just to stabilise the population.

As the RSPCA pointed out at a recent animal welfare forum, trapping and transporting horses to an abattoir, the main control method presently used in Kosciuszko National Park, is also lethal control, but a poor one for horse welfare given the stress of being trucked long distances.

Extraordinarily, the first priority of the NSW Government’s new policy is to trap and relocate horses to other areas of the national park where they will not cause “significant environmental harm”. With about 50% of the park already occupied by horses, it would be highly irresponsible to extend the damage to new areas of the national park.

This policy may accelerate growth in horse numbers by reducing competition for resources in existing herds and expanding their range, giving offspring a greater chance of survival.

The second strategy in the new policy is to trap and rehome (or domesticate) horses. This is also set to fail. In the past 16 years, homes have been found for an average 73 horses a year.[4] There are not enough willing landholders for this strategy to work. Only for a very small managed herd would this level of demand be effective.

As horse numbers continue to rise, the damage will grow and solutions will be more difficult to implement.

What about welfare?

The new legislation is not even good for the welfare of the horses themselves.

The Independent Technical Reference Group, set up to oversee the development of the horse management plan consisting of the RSPCA, distinguished ecologists and invasive animal management experts, as well as a statistician, reports that the “cumulative impact of the process of passive trapping, loading and transport to a holding area, long-distance transport to an abattoir, lairage and slaughter has a much higher welfare impact than ground or aerial shooting”.[5]

As three horse experts remind us, without alternative control measures, the population is mainly regulated by food availability:

“While ‘no kill’ is seemingly more compassionate, it may ultimately and unintentionally be crueller. As horse populations reach the carrying capacity of their habitats, they become malnourished and their fertility declines. Horses in very poor condition will not produce foals. When malnutrition persists, many horses will die young and many will die slowly.”[6]

We haven’t even started to consider the unseen suffering of native animals that lose habitat and food to feral horses, and die miserably due to starvation, predation or exposure.

The horse welfare issues are being blurred with the ethics of killing. Barilaro says we should not kill any feral horses, that “[i]n this day and age in a society that has a social conscience we should consider other tools”.[7] To support this, he refers to the aerial shooting of feral horses in Guy Fawkes National Park in 2000, when more than 600 horses were killed. He wrongly implies all 600 suffered an inhumane death, when it was only one or two that were not killed cleanly. Is the death of any horse now socially unacceptable? Does Barilaro now condemn cattle farming? Each month, more than 600,000 cattle are killed in Australian abattoirs.[8]

As Andrea Harvey, who is completing PhD research into the welfare of horses in Kosciuszko National Park, asked recently at an animal welfare symposium, “are we protecting our view of the horse, or what is good from the horse’s point of view?”[9]

Widespread condemnation

Eminent people and bodies have lined up to condemn the government for its seemingly irrational legislation.

Graeme Worboys, former NSW National Parks and Wildlife director and an associate professor at Australian National University writes:

“This is an extraordinary proposal given that the brumby is an introduced stock animal gone wild and it is threatening the special values of Kosciuszko by trampling, eroding and polluting its unique alpine wetlands and catchments. …The real heritage needing protection is Australia’s native alpine animals and plants, the health of the alpine ecosystems and catchments and the beauty of the mountains. These heavy, hard hooved animals are trashing these sensitive alpine catchments.”[10]

The Independent Technical Reference Group wrote to the NSW Premier, saying the new legislation “will make it impossible to conserve the unique environmental values of Kosciuszko National Park. At the same time, the limitations it places on wild horse management will have serious consequences for the welfare of the very horses it professes to protect.”[11]

In a highly unusual move, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) wrote to the NSW environment minister warning that the legislation “prioritises an alien species, bred from domestic stock, which demonstrably damages the fundamental values of the protected area, and is inconsistent with the protect areas’ conservation objective and the existing Plan of Management…and creates a disturbing precedent at both national and global levels”.[12]

The Australian Academy of Science wrote to the NSW government, saying that the law “prioritises protection of one invasive species over many native species and the fragile ecosystems in Kosciuszko National Park, and it does so against the considered professional advice of scientists and researchers.”[13]

Barilaro claims in Parliament that the bill is “a victory for the people who have taken a commonsense approach to balancing and managing both our cherished horses and our cherished wildlife.” This couldn’t be further from the truth.

As summed up by Worboys:

“Barilaro’s proposed legislation is a step too far. It is political madness in a world where nature everywhere is under threat. Kosciuszko is a special rare alpine environment in a flat dry continent.”[14]

Widespread condemnation

We have teamed up with the NSW National Parks Association to run a joint campaign to overturn the legislation and ensure an effective plan is urgently put in place to significantly reduce horse impacts in Kosciuszko National Park.

We plan to employ a full-time staff member to work on this campaign, but desperately need more funds. Can you help?

[button link=”https://invasives.org.au/donate/”]DONATE TODAY[/button]

More info

Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Act 2018 >>
2016 draft wild horse management plan for Kosciuszko National Park >>
Preliminary determination – listing of feral horses as a key threatening process >>

Reclaim Kosci

The Invasive Species Council is fighting back against the failure to protect Kosciuszko National Park from feral horses and is the lead organisation behind Reclaim Kosci, which is:

  • Raising awareness about the impacts of feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park.
  • Championing the campaign to repeal the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Act 2018.
  • Seeking a substantial reduction in the feral horse population in Kosciuszko National Park through humane and effective means.

[button link=”https://reclaimkosci.org.au/”]Visit ReclaimKosci.org.au >>[/button]


[1] 2014 Survey of Feral Horses (Equus ferus caballus) in the Australian Alps Dec 2015. Prepared for the Australian Alps Liaison Committee by Dr Stuart Cairns of the Environmental and Rural Science, University of New England Armidale and Geoff Robertson, office of Environment and Heritage NSW. The 9,520 estimate has a 95% confidence interval of between 7,529 and 11,814 horses).

[2] Harvey, Joone and Hampton 2018. Hold your horses – brumby fertility control isn’t that easy. The Conversation. Andrea Harvey, University of Technology Sydney, Carolynne Joone, James Cook University and Jordan Hampton, Murdoch University. 28 May 2018.

[3] In the Big Boggy area, mark-recapture surveys recorded the horse population increased by from 81 to 195 horses, or 140%, over a nine-year period despite 228 horses being removed from that area. OEH 2016. Review of the 2008 Horse Management Plan and Wild Horse Management Program, Kosciuszko National Park, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage.

[4] A total of 583 horses were domesticated during the most recent eight-year period of the horse management program 2008-09 to 2015-16 according to the Review of the 2008 Horse Management Plan and Wild Horse Management Program, Kosciuszko National Park, Office of Environment and Heritage, 2016. The greatest number of horses rehomed was 180 in 2011-12, while only seven were rehomed in 2008/09.

[5] OEH 2016, Final report of the Independent Technical Reference Group, Supplementary to the Kosciuszko National Park Wild Horse Management Plan, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage.

[6] Harvey, Joone and Hampton 2018. ibid.

[7] Second reading speech to NSW Parliament by John Barilaro for the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Bill 2018, 23 May 2018.

[8] Australian Bureau of Statistics,Livestock Slaughtered and Meat Produced, Australia, June 2018.

[9] The 8th Annual Dr Robert Dixon Memorial Animal Welfare Symposium, Sydney University Veterinary School, 18 July 2018.

[10] Save Kosciuszko by Graeme Worboys in Pearls and Irritations, 24 May 2018. https://johnmenadue.com/graeme-worboys-save-kosciuszko/

[11] Letter to the NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, 3 June 2018.

[12] Letter to NSW Minister for the Environment Gabrielle Upton, 4 June 2018.

[13] Letter to NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro, 1 June 2018.

[14] Save Kosciuszko by Graeme Worboys in Pearls and Irritations, 24 May 2018. https://johnmenadue.com/graeme-worboys-save-kosciuszko/

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