Brumby, or wild horse, numbers in Australia's Alps are growing steadily and are a cause for concern. A series of National Parks are linked across the Australian Alps covering parts of Victoria, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. The current numbers of horses in the region is unsustainable and the problem is rapidly worsening with perhaps as many as 12-14,000 horses predicted by 2012.
Brumby management is one of the most controversial of all feral animal issues. Few people argue that this number of horses is OK in the region - they are hard-hoofed animals in an area that evolved without hoofed animals and significant damage is caused. Horses form tracks and trails that can lead to draining of significant habitat for rare and threatened species like the corroboree frog and the broad-toothed rat. Native vegetation is significantly altered by horses and there are plants that occur only in this part of the world and nowhere else that are at risk of extinction.
But what to do about feral horses is the subject of much angst and disagreement. Horses occupy an iconic place for many people and the idea that they could be shot is alarming. A government horse cull of about 600 horses in the Guy Fawkes River National Park in the north of NSW caused a huge outcry in 2000 and effectively led to the removal of aerial culling as a method of control in the State. In New South Wales, the only method of control currently available is "catch and remove".
"Catch and remove" sounds much more humane than culling but there does need to be a mature discussion about its effectiveness. Firstly, the numbers aren't currently keeping up and the result is damage to the National Parks. We have to recognize that there are consequences on wildlife and native vegetation of allowing horse numbers to grow unchecked - these might take longer to develop and not be so obvious to the eye but we have a responsibility to native biodiversity. The massive bushfire of early 2003 effectively allowed us to put off public discussion of the issue for a few years because it killed about half the brumbies living in the Alps.
My second big issue with "catch and remove" is that I think the overall consequences on horse welfare are probably worse than straight out culling. Everyone would like to think that the brumbies are removed to a better place where they are retrained as recreational horses or given space to live out their lives but I don't think this would actually be what happens in most cases. I don't know the fate of removed horses, but I suspect at least some are simply shipped to the abattoir for processing. Horses are cheap: a quick internet search for horses around Canberra where I live shows I could easily get any number of horses for less than a thousand bucks and there are even ones available "free to good home". If I wanted a horse, would I really go to the cost and risk of re-training a wild horse? I reckon only real enthusiasts would go for a brumby, so it's unrealistic to think we are going to re-home wild horses in sufficient numbers to preserve our National Parks.
So what happens to a horse removed from a National Park in New South Wales and transported to an abattoir? It's a horrible thought but, in my view, it needs to be discussed if "catch and remove" remains the only option for control. To my knowledge, not many abattoirs process horses. The most likely fate is a trip to Peterborough in South Australia, at least 16 hours away from the Australian Alps, probably much more. I grew up with horses and remember the terrible trauma a mare, Makista, suffered when her halter tightened on her coming from the Scone NSW sales to our place at Martinsville, only about an hour and a half away - she'd bashed both ends of herself horribly. I have a lot of trouble with the idea of wild horses loaded and transported on trucks when they have never had human handling before, only to end up at the "glue factory" anyway, probably for a pretty small financial return.
I stress that I don't know the fate of these horses: I'm simply making the point that I think this possibility needs to be considered, so that "capture and remove" doesn't equate to "out of sight, out of mind". As I understand things, no change in the NSW policy is possible without public consultation. One lesson truly learned from the Guy Fawkes River experience is that the community requires park managers to involve them in discussion and NSW National Parks are now very good at public consultation.
Fertility control is not currently viable and has some significant problems associated with it as well. It has been used on small numbers of horses in the United States and the US Department of Agriculture's Gonacon product is under test for horses. So what are the alternatives? I think we need a discussion that "capture and cull" is a better alternative than "capture and remove". It would not prevent the removal of horses destined for re-homing, but it would face up to the reality of what happens to the horses. Aerial culling is considered a humane method of control for camels, pigs, goats and horses in many jurisdictions. However, if the NSW community is not willing to accept aerial culling, perhaps "capture and cull" would be acceptable?
I recently spoke on this issue of ABC Radio, the tape of which is available here.
Posted by Tony Peacock, founder of 'Feral Thoughts'