Federal Senate set to shine a spotlight on failures to control feral horses in the Australian Alps

Media Release |

The Invasive Species Council welcomes a Senate inquiry initiated by ACT Senator David Pocock into the management of feral horses and other hard-hoofed invasive species in Australia’s national heritage-listed Australian Alps. 

‘This inquiry has the potential to be a game changer by putting a spotlight on the inadequate protection of Australia’s alpine region and wildlife from the damage caused by exploding numbers of feral horses and other hard-hoofed invasives like feral deer and pigs,’ said Invasive Species Council advocacy manager Jack Gough.

‘Right now thousands of feral horses are trashing and trampling our unique alpine wildlife, rivers and ecosystems and the NSW and Victorian governments are failing to rapidly reduce their numbers. We expect this inquiry will demonstrate both the opportunities and the necessity for federal intervention to address this.

‘We congratulate Senator Pocock for his vision and commitment and encourage all parties to support this important inquiry. 

‘We can’t have both feral horses and thriving national parks. The future of unique Australian species such as the corroboree frog, sensitive alpine wildflowers and the headwaters of the Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers are at stake if feral horse numbers are not brought down rapidly.

‘We need Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek to step in and say enough is enough. She has the power under Commonwealth environmental laws to force state governments to take more extensive and rapid action to protect the national heritage-listed Australian Alps.

‘Without action on feral horses and feral deer, the Albanese Government will not be able to meet their commitment to no new extinctions. Feral horses and deer threaten at least 35 state and nationally listed threatened species, including the mountain skink, the stocky galaxias, the northern corroboree frog and the mountain pygmy possum.  

‘Feral horses and deer in the Alps are also a threat to nationally significant ecological communities, including the endangered Alpine Sphagnum Bogs and Associated Fens and the Ramsar listed Ginini Flats Wetland Complex,’ said Mr Gough.

Background notes for editors:

  • Despite plans in place to reduce feral horse numbers, the latest government survey found that NSW’s feral horse population in Kosciuszko National Park has increased alarmingly from 14,000 to over 18,000 during the past two years – a 30% jump.
  • In Victoria, the most recent government figures (from 2019) found there are over 5,000 feral horses in the Victorian Alps and the Invasive Species Council remain concerned that culling is not occurring at the rate required to reduce the population and protect Kosciuszko National Park.
  • In 2008, under the previous federal Labor government, the Australian Alps National Parks and Reserves was declared to be a National Heritage Place due to its rich and unique biological diversity, spectacular and distinctive landscape and indigenous cultural heritage.
  • Under Section 324Y of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, the federal Environment Minister can make regulations requiring certain actions to remove feral horses and other hard-hoofed invasive species to protect the National Heritage values of the Alps. State Governments must then comply with these regulations.
  • In June 2021, then Environment Minister Sussan Ley wrote to NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean (letter available here, obtained under FOI) to notify him of ‘my intention to enact regulations to address the damage caused by feral horses to the biodiversity and heritage values of Kosciuszko National Park, a key component of the Australian Alps National Parks and Reserves National Heritage Place.’
  • The letter also said: ‘I consider the NSW Government is currently failing in its obligations to protect the National Heritage values of the Australian Alps National Parks and Reserves National Heritage Place from feral horse damage. For this reason the Australian Government is considering the development of regulations under the Act that oblige protected area managers to take specific action on feral horses, including the responsible, evidence-based, and humane reduction and management of populations, to safeguard the unique biodiversity and heritage values of this nationally significant place.
  • Without effective control, feral horse numbers are growing by approximately 15-20% per year in the Australian Alps.
  • Australia’s alpine plants and animals did not evolve with heavy, hard-hoofed animals including feral horses that cause damage through selective grazing, food competition, trampling, track creation, pugging, soil compaction, wallowing and dust bathing.
  • Water that flows from Kosciuszko’s mountain springs delivers almost a third of the Murray Darling Basin’s annual water yield, but feral horses are degrading the high water-holding capacity of alpine soils and vegetation which allow the slow discharge of water to keep streams flowing throughout the year.

Help protect NSW!

Our expert team has written a list of policy asks detailing exactly what the next NSW government needs to do to stamp out some of the worst invasive species impacts across the state. But they will only become a reality if every key political candidate at the 2023 NSW state election hears about it from you!

Dear National Deer Management Coordinator,

Please accept this as a submission to the National Feral Deer Action Plan.

[Your personalised message will appear here] 

I am very concerned about the spread of deer and am pleased that a national plan has finally been developed. Without urgent action, funding and commitment from all levels of government it is clear that feral deer will continue to spread and damage our environment.

The feral deer population in Australia is growing rapidly and spreading across the country, damaging our natural environment, causing havoc for farmers and foresters and threatening public safety. Unlike much of the world where deer are native, our plants and wildlife haven’t evolved to deal with these heavy hard hooved animals with a voracious appetite.
With no natural predators and an ability to adapt to almost all environments, they could occupy almost all of Australia unless stopped. Despite this, state and territory governments have been slow to respond and in Victoria and Tasmania they are still protected by law for the enjoyment of hunters.

This plan should be adopted by all governments but must also be underpinned by dedicated funding and clear responsibilities. A plan without funding or accountability is a plan that will fail and Australia cannot afford for this to fail.

In order to prevent the spread of feral deer and reduce their impact on our native wildlife, ecosystems and agriculture, I ask that the following recommendations be adopted for the final National Feral Deer Action Plan:

1. All federal, state and territory governments should adopt the National Feral Deer Action Plan and declare feral deer to be a priority pest animal species.

2. All federal, state and territory governments should commit to:

  • Contain deer to the existing large population areas.
  • Reduce and eradicate smaller and isolated populations.
  • Protect important environmental assets such as world and national heritage areas.
  • Develop and fund regional plans and strategies to manage deer populations which involve land managers across all tenures.

3. In order to drive action and the success of this plan, there should be dedicated Commonwealth funding and support for:

  • A permanent national feral deer coordinator position.
  • A permanent federal feral deer action committee with representatives from the commonwealth and state and territory governments and the environmental and agricultural sectors.
  • An ongoing public education campaign on feral deer.
  • A network of regional feral deer coordinators to drive local action across tenures.

4. The expected outcomes for the plan need to be more ambitious, with clear interim targets including:

  • Within one year, all States and Territories should have in place arrangements to implement the National Feral Deer Action Plan, including allocating dedicated funding for implementation.
  • Within one year, feral deer management plans should be developed for key environmental assets of national significance, including the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, the Greater Blue Mountains, the Australian Alps, the Gondwana Rainforests and the Wet Tropics of Queensland.
  • Within five years coordinated landscape scale management should be in place where land owners, land managers, government and community are demonstrably working together.

5. A national feral deer containment map with three zones should be adopted. It should be more ambitious than the zone map in the current draft plan and there should be greater clarity in the naming of the zones. Improvements that should be adopted include:

  • Renaming the zones to better reflect the management intention to ‘Containment Zone 1’ (the current large population zone), ‘Containment Buffer Zone 2’ (the current buffer zone) and ‘Eradication and prevention Zone 3’ (the current small isolated population zone).
  • The NSW northern rivers area should be in the eradication and prevention zone as there are few feral deer currently in this region and eradicating isolated populations and preventing spread into this area is still possible.
  • The whole of South Australia should be in the eradication and prevention zone as eradication is the goal of the SA Government.
  • The Tasmanian region in the containment zone should be smaller to reflect greater ambition and potential for eradication of deer populations.
  • In eastern Victoria areas such as Wilson’s Promontory, Westernport islands and the Mornington Peninsula should be in the eradication and prevention zone.

6. There should be consistent laws and regulations across all states and territories that:

  • Recognise feral deer as a pest animal and treat them as such.
  • Establish a clear responsibility for all landholders and managers to be involved in feral deer control programs.
  • Set clear penalties to stop the wilful or negligent release of feral deer.
  • Prevent new deer farms in areas where no feral deer are present and phase out all deer farms in the eradication and prevention zone.
  • Enable enforcement of compliance, including on government land.

I support the follow principles being adopted in the final National Feral Deer Action Plan:

  • Feral deer are a pest and should be treated as such on all tenures, except on approved deer farms.
  • Federal, state and territory governments have a responsibility to fund the outcomes under this plan.
  • All land managers in areas where feral deer are present have a responsibility to be involved in feral deer control programs.
  • The focus of management efforts should be on eradication of isolated, satellite populations, protection of key environmental assets currently impacted and stopping the spread to new regions.
  • Feral deer control should be undertaken humanely, safely and professionally according to agreed protocols and all tools which meet this criteria should be adopted, including aerial control.
  • Funding for coordination, regional planning and community engagement is necessary for effective feral deer management.
  • Ongoing management and follow up control efforts are required to achieve long lasting results.
  • Rules and regulations should be consistent across jurisdictions and land tenures.
  • Recreational hunting is not an effective strategy for feral deer control and should not be relied upon.
[Your name]
[Your email address]
[Your suburb], [Your state]