Feral horses

Feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park and damage to sub-alpine bog, Dec 2013. Photo: D Butcher.

Feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park and damage to sub-alpine bog, Dec 2013. Photo: D Butcher.

Feral horse numbers are expanding across the Australian Alps and in parts of Queensland, 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.

In the Australian Alps both the NSW and Victorian Governments are failing to protect our alpine parks from severe damage by feral horses.

Because of opposition from the brumby lobby (for spurious cultural reasons), these governments have been unwilling to reduce horse numbers.

A legend past its time

During the time of the legend of the Man from Snowy River, it is believed there were only ever 200 wild horses in the Alps. Feral horses now number over 10,000 in the alpine parks, and this number has been increasing about 20% each year, even with a trapping program in place.

Without new action, the population doubles about every four years. Over time, horse density, range and damage will escalate, making future control more difficult and expensive.

Feral horses trample and eat large amounts of alpine and sub-alpine plants, foul wetlands, erode streams, spread weeds, create a vast network of tracks and threaten the safety of motorists. Because of the short summer growing season, damaged and depleted alpine plants recover very slowly.

There is only one practical and humane solution. A large-scale horse removal program in the Australian Alps is essential to prevent continued exponential population growth and to save sensitive alpine habitats.

The current NSW trapping program (operating since 2003) is extremely costly, inhumane (most horses are trucked long distances to slaughterhouses) and ineffective. It has been unable to even stabilise the population, let alone reduce it.

Feral horse numbers continue to grow and move into new areas, including the highly sensive Mt Kosciuzo alpine summit area. There is a more limited control program in some parts of Victoria. In contrast, the ACT Government has an effective control program that keeps ACT essentially feral horse free. The ACT strategy involves trapping and euthanasia, with aerial shooting reserved (and not yet needed) for use when trapping proves ineffective.

An aerial culling program is now the only humane solution for the large numbers of horses in the Australian Alps in NSW and Victoria, provided there is rigorous welfare supervision, with close involvement of the RSPCA.

An effective control program brings animal welfare benefits that should not be ignored. There will be more suffering in the future when much larger numbers of feral horses have to be killed and when they starve because of over-population. We must be equally concerned about the welfare of the native species adversely affected by feral horses.

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