Feral horse numbers are expanding across the Australian Alps, in Kosciuszko National Park, parts of Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia.
Australia has up to 400,000 feral horses, the world’s largest wild population. As big, hard-hoofed animals, they cause immense ecological damage, particularly in the fragile high country of the Australian Alps including Alpine and Kosciuszko national parks.
Feral horse populations have established themselves in at least 10 conservation areas across NSW, including Australia’s iconic Kosciuszko National Park and world heritage-listed areas of the Blue Mountains, Barrington Tops, Guy Fawkes and Oxley Wild Rivers national parks. Kosciuszko National Park is particularly under pressure from NSW’s largest feral horse population, putting this fragile and unique alpine landscape at risk.
The ACT Government has an effective policy to remove horses that move from NSW into the ACT. There are no feral horses in ACT conservation areas.
The Victorian Government is tackling feral horse numbers using a combination of humane control methods. In Alpine National Park where a 2019 survey estimated there were about 5,000 horses, a science-based feral horse action plan was adopted in 2021 that aims to significantly reduce the entire population and remove isolated population in areas such as Bogong High Plains. In Barmah National Park, home to the world’s largest river red gum forests and wetlands, a strategic action plan has been adopted to significantly reduce the horse population by 2023 and ultimately remove the entire population.
The hard hoofs of feral horses are putting many of our threatened species at risk, including the corroboree frog and the broad-toothed mouse.
Photos: Corroboree frog, Ken Griffiths. Broad-toothed mouse, Catching the Eye | CC BY 2.0
In 2018, the NSW Government abandoned a science-based feral horse management plan that had been developed after extensive consultation, instead enacting the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Act. The Act prioritises the protection of large numbers of horses over the protection of threatened native species.
An investigation by the Invasive Species Council revealed in January 2019 that the feral horse trapping program had come to a complete standstill. Our investigation found that no feral horses had been removed from the southern half of Kosciuszko National Park since April 2016, or the northern half since August 2017. Horse populations had been allowed to expand and grow, rising by an average of 18% a year.
In 2020 there were an estimated 14,000 feral horses in Kosciuszko. After trapping recommenced, 99 horses were removed in 2019/20 and 787 in 2020/21 — a mere 5% of the estimated population. This trapping program was extremely costly and inhumane – most horses were trucked long distances, with the majority ending up in slaughterhouses. It was also ineffective and fell well short of stabilising the population, let alone reducing it.
Effective control of feral horses in protected areas, like other feral animals, means equipping park managers with as many control options as possible to reduce feral animal numbers. An integrated culling program, using both aerial and ground shooting, has been assessed to be one of the most effective, humane solutions for removing large numbers of horses, provided it is undertaken under strict animal welfare protocols with close involvement of the RSPCA.
That is why we have pushed so hard for an effective, humane, adaptive approach to feral horse management.
Without an effective control program, the feral horse population in Kosciuszko National Park will continue to grow, meaning more feral horses will need to be culled in the future as environmental damage escalates.
Early, effective control reduces the number of horses removed in the long-run and avoids animal suffering and starvation from over-population. Without an effective control program, more native animals will suffer as horses destroy their habitats.
We became so alarmed at the lack of feral horse management in Kosciuszko National Park that we helped form a campaign called Reclaim Kosci, which aims to overturn NSW’s environmentally backwards ‘Wild Horse Heritage Act’.
The Reclaim Kosci team is hosted by our organisation and supported by a huge number of passionate, committed volunteers. We help drive and support their key activities.
The campaign has drawn a huge amount of support over a very short period of time.
There is now a massive groundswell of people who want the NSW Government to act and stop the increasing impacts of feral horses on one of Australia’s most loved national parks
A key element of the campaign has been about talking with people from all walks of life about the damage feral horses are inflicting on Kosciuszko National Park. All those conversations and meetings have paid off. On Thursday, 24 November 2021, then NSW environment minister Matt Kean adopted a feral horse plan for Kosciuszko National Park.
The final plan promises a significant reduction in feral horses, but leaves one third of the park overrun by this damaging feral animal. The plan will reduce the horse population by 80% – from around 14,000 to 3000, over just five years. Compared to the slow removal rates over the past 20 years, this, if achieved, would be a significant improvement for horse control in the Kosciuszko.
However, the plan is still a long way from what’s needed to solve Kosciuszko’s horse crisis. In drawing up the plan Minister Kean was hamstrung by the Wild Horse Heritage Act, a draconian piece of legislation that requires the protection of feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park.
The retention of feral horses in one third of Kosciuszko is deeply problematic. It locks in damage to the Byadbo and Pilot wilderness areas in the south and protects an ongoing horse population within and adjacent to the Jagungal Wilderness Area.
Wetlands such as the vast Currango peat wetlands in the north and critical habitat of threatened species such as the northern corroboree frog, stocky galaxias and the lovable broad-toothed mouse will all suffer as the damaging impacts of hard-hooves is locked in for the plan’s duration.
Although this plan has been finalised, we are not taking our eyes off this issue until feral horses are removed to the point that Kosciuszko’s wildlife and alpine wilderness is protected and recovering from the impacts of feral horses.
Our Reclaim Kosci campaign still needs your support. You can help by donating today.
We will not give up until Kosciuszko is protected from feral horse impacts.