Growing debate about feral horses

The lack of effective control programs is allowing feral horse numbers to grow in the Australian Alps. Image courtesy Don Butcher

The lack of effective control programs is allowing feral horse numbers to grow in the Australian Alps. Image courtesy Don Butcher

As feral horse numbers grow in the Australian Alps in the absence of an effective control program, so too is concern about the escalating damage.

The NSW national parks service is updating its failed 2008 feral horse management plan. It aims to have a draft ‘Wild Horse Management Plan’ by April 2015 and is conducting a series of interactive web-based ‘conversations’ from July until the end of November [extended until 12 Dec 2014]. Get involved by visiting the Protect the Snowies website. One of the discussions until 27 October is ‘What does humane treatment mean to you?’.

The Victorian Government has delayed the release of its draft horse plan, presumably because of the November state election, but we welcome the Environment Minister’s acceptance that all options are now on the table, including aerial shooting.

A Guardian story: A time to cull? The battle over Australia’s brumbies gives an excellent and stark account of the environmental and welfare impacts of ‘swelling numbers’ of feral horses. The one thing we take issue with is the statement that ‘even now, conservationists are not game to talk publicly about aerial culling’. We and other groups have been publicly calling for it for some years now.

ANU ecologists Don Driscoll and Sam Banks in The grim story of the Snowy Mountains’ cannibal horses (The Conversation) compare the fate of feral horses and the environment under the current approach and with aerial shooting. They find that, ‘over ten years, more horses suffer and die, and the environmental impacts are substantially worse without aerial culling than with it’.

The Invasive Species Council received this thoughtful piece from one of our southern NSW supporters, Graham Scully.

At almost the same time as NPWS began a review of the management of wild (read feral) horses in Kosciuszko National Park, the National Museum of Australia mounted a major exhibition ‘Spirited: Australia’s horse story‘.

Diane Thompson, noticing that the exhibition didn’t refer at all to the problems of feral horses in Australia’s alpine regions, negotiated with the museum to contribute to a blog, in which the spectrum of thoughts and feelings about horses in our natural environments is being shared. Diane’s piece Horses in the high country: Is there a ‘dark side’ to the presence of horses in Australia? has generated many comments.

Another site that is highly interesting to me is Horses for Discourses, a critical examination of the horse in Australian culture. As a psychologist, I have been fascinated by the strength of opposing views on all kinds of issues and the apparent inability of different camps to listen to or be influenced by opposing arguments. It’ss well worth putting in the time to begin to understand the background and long-held attitudes to horses in Australia’s culture.

Scroll through Phar Lap’s heart and war horses to:

    • Scenes from Snowy river: early bushmen’s cruelty to horses, the horse as a cultural symbol and its connection to who we are as a nation
    • the similar issues over ferals / mustangs in the USA
    • the true history of the stockman and why we, as Australians, want so much to believe in the noble stockman
    • another dark side, the stockman and his horse in colonisation and dispossession of the Aboriginal people
    • the Bulletin debates, 1809-1910 between writers and poets, Lawson and Patterson on the virtues of the city VS the bush and the question of why as we become more urban do we want to cling more to the bushman-hero myth.
    • Some must read poetry. Here is just one verse from Francis Kenna’s ‘Banjo, of the Overflow’.

I am tired of reading prattle of the sweetly-lowing cattle   

Stringing out across the open with the bushmen riding free;

I am sick at heart of roving up and down the country droving,  

And of alternating damper with the salt-junk and the tea.

Read also

80,000 feral horses for the Australian Alps? >>


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3 Responses to “Growing debate about feral horses”

  1. Martha Sear, the Senior Curator at the National Museum of Australia who worked with Dianne Thompson on the guest post mentioned above, and one of the curators who worked on the Spirited: Australia’s Horse Story exhibition, has been in touch to clarify the sentence in this post suggesting that Dianne had noticed ‘the exhibition didn’t refer at all to the problems of feral horses in Australia’s alpine regions’. She noted that Dianne’s post actually appeared two months before Spirited opened. The exhibition and its associated programs, as well as the Horses in Australia Project they were a part of, did address issues surrounding the presence of brumbies in alpine (and other) environments, including ecological damage.

  2. It’s a shame that the focus is on killing rather than looking at the alternatives and research globally whereby wild horses are valued for both the contribution they make to enriching ecosystems- across all types of environments from sensitive areas with permafrost (Pleistocene Park in Siberia) to the deserts of Namibia where the horses are contained in a reserve alongside hyenas, cheetahs and leopards, to the exmoor ponies in the Netherlands and of course the rewinding of the Cantabrian Mountains in Spain with large herbivores to include wild horses. Without exception, the environmentalists and researchers around the world (with the exception of the status quo environmentalists in Australia) have come to the conclusion that the only way forward is large mammal coexistence and recognise the wild horse as the goose who has laid the golden egg in mitigating bush fires from cropping dry coarse vegetation, restoring grasses through seed dispersal, contributing to the humus content of soil from their feces, filling their role as prey in some areas and using their keen sense of smell to direct them to water sources beneath the ground in winter and summer and use their hooves to break ice or dirt allowing other species access too. It is astounding how far behind the science is in Australia and how deep the bias runs in the environmental community- with the exception of the scientists and researchers associated with The Centre for Compassionate Conservation at UTS. How any researcher can put aside their ethics and take funding to prove damage or how any environmental consulting firm can pocket money from clients, including Parks, to prove a case for culling rather than look and ask for ALL of the evidence is unconscionable. If I had to choose believing them or the evidence put forth on sentience in non-human animals (feral or native) by Dr. Philip Low and Stephen Hawking, I choose to believe the latter and will continue to work on behalf of the brumbies.

  3. There is too much haste in judging the wild horse and too little reflection to see what we people can do to accommodate such a magnificent presence who has done so much for mankind and was brought to Australia to help and as a companion of our kind. There is a mutualistic symbiosis between horses and people and there are also many positive contributions that they can make to ecosystems when given the chance. Each particular case of their occurrence should be considered and weighed carefully. It there are areas where they should not occur then the could be fenced out or otherwise relocated. But remember that horses are great reducers of dry flammable vegetation and can greatly help to reduce catastrophic fires, and also that they can help heal ecosystems that have been damaged. This is due to their post-gastric digestive system, that makes them complementary to ruminant digesters, such as cattle, sheep, deer, etc. Their feces are less degraded and so contribute in a major fashion to the humus content of soils, also within these feces are contained many intact seeds that can then germinate from the feces. These need not be exotic plant seeds but can just as easily be native Australian seeds. We should not unjustly lump the wild horses with other species and then blame them all, but most of all make the noble horse take the brunt of the blame. This is a vicious and low-life way of relating to such a wonderful presence. Where there’s a will there’s a way, and there is a way for us to share in the right places in Australia, the land, freedom, and very life with such beautiful and powerful companions and helpers.