A time to cull? The battle over Australia's brumbies
It’s been a hard winter for Australia’s wild horses. But things may be about to get much worse for these totemic animals. Their swelling numbers are damaging the continent’s precious alpine ranges, and tensions are mounting over what needs to happen next.
Words by Gabrielle Chan, photography by Mike Bowers
Wednesday 20 August 2014 06.25 BST
The last mare in Dead Horse Gap lies dying on a pure-white bed of snow. Her ears twitch as we approach, but she’s too weak to lift her head. Her rib bones are a scaffold now for her chocolate brown coat.
About her, her fellow mob lie in various stages of decay, food for fat, shiny foxes. Crows line the pretty snow gums above.
This mare, like her mates, has starved here in Australia’s alpine winter landscape for the unhappy chance of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was caught in a mountain pass when the late snow arrived, and nothing can save her now. And by her eye, she knows it.
This scene is, as the poet Tennyson put it, “nature, red in tooth and claw”. In another life, a mare like her could have been petted and cosseted and dressed in a pink rug by a teenage girl who would have whispered love-torn secrets into that twitching ear. In this story, the foxes will have it.
It’s a bad year for Australia’s wild horses caught in the upper reaches of the Australian Alps. This mountain pass between New South Wales and Victoria is not called Dead Horse Gap for nothing.
But it could get worse for the wild horses as national parks in Victoria and NSW decide how to manage brumby numbers, which they describe as out of control.
Both states are considering “wild horse management plans” for the next five years. Both will address how to cull brumbies with all methods on the table, in an effort to protect Australian habitats and species.
brumby map fact box
They may be dying up top, but down the mountain, on the open plains of the now-deserted gold mining village of Kiandra, a mob of 24 fat and shiny brumbies tramps through the appropriately named Racecourse creek. The creek forms part of the Eucumbene catchment, delivering water to 2.1 million people downstream.
These animals are magnificent as they run through the snow against a pink evening sky. When we follow their tracks, they run along a watercourse, leaving deep prints in a spongy, unstable wetland, before escaping from us to higher ground. As we follow, the scene resembles a Lord of the Rings landscape of soft grassland studded by pools fringed with the “super moss”, sphagnum.
Problem is, this swampy stuff is heritage-listed. Sphagnum is highly prized for holding a lot of water and carbon. It is the breeding ground for the endangered corroboree frog, a black and fluoro smudge that would fit on the end of a teaspoon. The surrounding environment is habitat for other endangered species such as the pygmy possum, the broad-toothed rat, the mountain she-oak skink and the guthega skink.
The alpine bogs, according to Professor Emeritus Geoff Hope of the Australian National University, are the perfect water distribution system. When the rain falls, the bogs hold on to the water and then slowly release it so it does not create great gullies cutting through the landscape. And the brumbies have sharp hooves.
“Horses can do incredible damage incredibly quickly because it is soft stuff and they are great heavy-hoofed animals but the long-term effect is to block the drainage and hold the water in the catchment for a lot longer than it would otherwise be,” Hope says.
There are 1.6m hectares which make up the heritage-listed Australian Alps, contained within 11 national parks and nature reserves spilling across NSW, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory. The mountains are the headwaters to the country’s three best-known rivers, the Murray, the Murrumbidgee and the Snowy rivers. This most reliable of water supplies in a dry continent is estimated to be worth $9.6bn a year.
Meanwhile, the last aerial survey of brumbies by Michelle Dawson in 2009 estimated 7,679 across the alps, up from 2,369 after the 2003 bushfires. In 2009, she forecast the numbers growing to more than 13,000 by 2012. The latest count from the 2014 survey is expected in coming months.
Brumby advocates dispute the numbers, suggesting mustering by helicopter in rugged terrain concentrates horses through valleys, which leads to double counting. It also assumes annual growth of about 20%, which does not account for bad seasons, such as the deaths caused by this year’s late snow.
A brumby dying of starvation.
For millennia the local people gathered in the mountains here to feast on the Bogong moths which migrate to the high plains of Victoria in spring.
When white populations arrived in the area some 150 years ago, they used the high country for summer grazing, building the bush huts still enjoyed by many mountain enthusiasts today.
It was during those very first years of European settlement that horses escaped into the bush. They became known as brumbies after the soldier and landholder James Brumby, who deliberately released his horses because he could no longer keep them.
And the wild horses spread, and grew large in the Australian imagination. Children grow up now on the stories of Elyne Mitchell, who wrote The Silver Brumby series about a stallion in the Snowy mountains.
Mountain horsemanship was most famously captured in Banjo Paterson’s The Man From Snowy River, a poem about the horseback chase of the highly prized colt from “old Regret” which joined a brumby mob.
When Australia chose to portray itself to the world in the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, it chose 120 stockmen and women dressed in bush clothing and mounted on stock horses, riding to the soundtrack of The Man From Snowy River movie.
Even so, Paterson also wrote about the wild horses being “a great nuisance to stock owners” and there are accounts from the mid-1800s of stockmen rounding up brumbies and shooting them.
The scientists also arrived here in in the mid-1800s, scouring the bush for new alpine flora and fauna. Geologists and anthropologists joined them, investigating the secrets held in Australia’s highest peaks.
Artists such as Eugene von Guerard painted the new-old landscape in the 1860s. Bushwalkers tramped, hunters trapped and Australia’s skiing industry was first established. The Snowy mountains hydro-electric scheme attracted new migrants to work on the renewable energy operation from the 1950s until it was completed in 1974.
Each of these groups still feels a sense of connection to the “Snowys”, as the area is now known, and the complexity of this issue is not least the tug of war between what governments like to call the various stakeholders.
If we were talking about the other feral animals in the park – the fox, pig, deer and rabbit – it would be an open-and-shut case. Baits would be laid, guns would loaded. No questions asked.
But a horse pulls at the heartstrings like no other introduced species.
In 2000, NSW national parks organised marksmen in helicopters to shoot brumbies in the Guy Fawkes river national park in northern NSW. When the public saw images of some of the 606 brumbies dead or dying in the bush landscape, there was public uproar.
Video link: The fact is the brumbies are here to stay, says cattleman Peter Cochranhttp://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2014/aug/20/brumbies-here-to-stay-australia-video
Animal welfare advocates lined up with traditional bush communities. Conservationists supported the cull. The political fallout caused a moratorium on aerial culling in NSW. For the public not used to large numbers of animal deaths, it jarred and even now, conservationists are not game to talk publicly about aerial culling.
But there are lots of contradictions here. Animals die en masse every day yet the ones we see, like the results of the Guy Fawkes river brumby cull or the dying mare we found at Dead Horse Gap, become the important ones.
Most farmers and graziers would never let other animals compete for feed and habitat on private land, yet some champion the rights of brumbies on public land. National parks have stopped the longstanding practice of allowing horse riders to take brumbies out of the bush for riding yet agonise over how to control the numbers.
Former soldier and politician Peter Cochran grew up in the mountains. His first horse ride was the long trip on the pommel of his mother’s saddle more than 120 kilometres between houses at the age of two. He runs a horse trekking business now out of his alpine property at Yaouk and is the president of the Snowy mountains bush user group and the chairman of the Tourism Snowy mountains board. He believes the emotion-charged debate over brumbies in the park runs deeper than just horses.
It goes back to the 1950s when the government first removed the rights of local families to graze cattle and continue their livelihoods in the high country. Cochran says communities still resent that decision and are now worried that “greenies” would completely remove the brumbies, which local communities consider part of their history.
“The brumby is symbolic of freedom but is also symbolic of the spiritual relationship between man, land and their horses and there has been a longstanding connection between the human being and the horse which is something underestimated in the world,” Cochran says.
“That relationship extends to the brumby and the brumby has now become symbolic of the battle which the people of the high country have had to maintain their freedom over the years.”
After the 2003 bushfires, cattlemen such as Cochran suggested the fire was a result of the build-up of fuel loads caused by the removal of grazing all those years ago. As one of the last large grazing animals left in the national park, apart from feral deer, Cochran believes horses reduce the fuel load.
However scientists disagree, concluding in one of a number of studies: “The use of livestock grazing in Australian alpine environments as a fire abatement practice is not justified on scientific grounds.”
Earlier this year, the environment minister, Greg Hunt, approved a trial of cattle grazing in a Victorian national park to compare the impacts of grazing. It may signal a change in attitude to large grazing – including by brumbies – in national park areas from the federal government.
Neither the grazing nor the heritage argument pass muster in the timber-panelled walls of the Australian National University’s Fenner school of environment and society. Here academics, led by a protected area management specialist Graeme Worboys, gather to debate the merits of removing horses from the Australian Alps. For them, this is a no-brainer: the horses need to go.
“This is like the Great Barrier Reef, it’s like Kakadu, it’s like Uluru, it’s a national heritage-listed property and Australian society has basically said we want to keep this very special part of Australia intact for the next generation and the generation after,” says Worboys, who has devoted his life to protecting the Snowys.
“They aren’t just the mountains for the graziers, they are everybody’s mountains. That’s what the park does. It achieves overall equity in the use of park.”
Roger Good is a retired alpine ecologist and soil conservationist who worked on restoring degraded areas following the removal of alpine grazing. Such was the feeling in the alpine areas in the 1960s and 1970s that at one stage, this gentle grandfather-type once packed a pistol. Just in case.
"Large grazing is not culturally very significant,” he says. “They thought it was. You can still have the cultural acceptance of it, that it did happen, that it’s been part of the history of the European settlement of the mountains but you don’t have to have stock up there to show the public this is what used to go on.”
Good believes the brumby numbers are unsustainable and that the animals should be culled substantially, down to hundreds rather than thousands.
As the ski traffic streams up the Alpine way towards the mountain resorts of Perisher and Thredbo, it passes by an 1880s hut which is the office of Nev Barrass, livestock carrier and proprietor of the Thredbo Valley Horseriding school. Barrass has a number of ponies in the yard, ready to carry tourists along bush tracks on private land.
He takes brumbies “rehomed” by the National Parks and Wildlife Service for his business because they are sure-footed, hardy and fully acclimatised to the mountain snow. A black mare, Gio, is saddled up for one of his regular clients.
We lean on the bush logs that make up his round yard as he talks about local community anger at losing their “way of life”.
“These animals opened up the country for people, you need to respect their history and their heritage,” says Barrass.
Video link: ‘We don’t want to see them shot’, says supporterhttp://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2014/aug/20/dont-shoot-brumby-supporters-video
“This hut was built in the 1880s, with logs dragged by horses out of the side of the hill. All these pretty little huts where the bushwalkers like to go and have their cups of tea, they were stockmen that built the bloody things so they could live there with their animals. The only reason the trails are still there is because the brumbies use them consistently.
“Don’t get me wrong. I have a lot of time for the Greens and their conservation. Bush users are conservationists as well and the only difference is we are on horseback and we are recognised in the history of the place of the European settlers.
“Declaring the brumbies as ferals is a bit like going down to Australia’s famous Bondi beach lifesavers and saying ‘thanks mate, we’ve declared this wilderness so get off – we don’t need you any more’.”
But in spite of the emotion, there is common ground. All sides of the debate agree the impacts of wild horses on delicate alpine areas should be minimised. The argument is over how to do that.
Since 2004, 1,524 horses (419 trapped and 1,105 roped) have been removed from the Alpine national park in Victoria. The Victorian government is preparing a draft wild horse management plan based on the advice of a roundtable group which included horse advocates, conservationists, animal welfare groups and national parks. It reached agreement on methods such as trapping and mustering horses for culling but could not reach unanimous agreement on aerial or ground shooting. When the draft is released, it will be open for public comment for 60 days.
The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) has just opened its public consultation process that will inform its next wild horse management plan. Since 2002, NPWS has removed more than 2,600 horses from the Kosciuszko national park through passive trapping, where horses voluntarily enter a yard. Of those, about one third are rehomed. The rest are sent to the abattoir.
Video link: Six academics outline the threat to flora and faunahttp://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2014/aug/20/six-brumby-academics-outline-threats-alpine-flora-fauna-video
Both NPWS and Parks Victoria remain reticent about commenting on the issue. No one was available in either service to speak to Guardian Australia.
Dr David Freudenberger is a lecturer and researcher at the ANU’s Fenner school of environment and society and studies the lower Snowy river.
“Part of the conundrum is that the horse is a stunning animal in the wrong place,” he says.
“Every time I see a mob of horses up in that country, it is gob smacking … but they are in the wrong place.”
*******************The brumby, at home in Australia's high country – in pictures
Perhaps the most loved of Australia’s introduced species, the brumby’s status may not spare it from some form of culling to protect native flora and fauna. Mike Bowers took a trip to the Snowy mountains to document these animals as they tried, some unsuccessfully, to see out the harsh winter in the Australian Alps. Its place in Australian folklore assured, many say it is time the wild horses – and their destructive practices – must be tackled
Please click here to view the wild, beautiful, horse: http://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2014/aug/20/the-brumby-at-home-in-australias-high-country-in-pictures
A delicate ecosystem that protects flora, fauna and water supply: Brumby bog fact box
1. Raised water table supporting sphagnum bog community and surrounding heathlands.
2. Dense and diverse vegetation cover protects the soil from erosion, protects soil carbon.
3. Sphagnum bog hummocks, habitat of the endangered corroboree frog.
4. Dense heath vegetation, habitat for birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals.
5. High-quality, erosion-free mountain water; protected from evaporation, with vegetation buffeting and slowing water in serious storms.