Where the wild horses are

By Amanda Burdon 8 March 2016
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Historic icon, convenient resource or environmental vandal – brumbies are both revered and reviled across our continent.

All the Aboriginal students perched on the steel fence around the dusty arena want to ride a piebald horse called Allan.

A three-year-old desert brumby, he’s steady and surefooted, with just the right amount of spunk to test new riding skills; he’s also the unlikely poster boy for a unique learning program. “Before we started offering the Certificate II in rural operations, most of these kids didn’t have a good attendance record,” says horseman and mentor Chris Barr, a teacher at the Ntaria School in Central Australia. “Now it’s up by 500 per cent and the horses are a big part of that.”

Twice a week the class travels to the remote outstation of Ipolera, south-west of Ntaria (Hermannsburg), which Chris aims to make as much like a working environment as possible. The students catch and gently break in wild horses, build fences, sleep out in swags and learn how to make saddles and bridles. One student was recently offered a job on an indigenous-run cattle station to the north, and several others see a future on horseback. “It’s wonderful seeing the growth in these young people as they work with the horses and learn from them,” Chris says.

Their ambitions were fuelled in April 2015 by a nine-day, 120km ride to Alice Springs to take part in the 100th anniversary ANZAC commemorations. Emulating their historical forebears, six students atop obliging mounts proudly wore Light Horse uniforms. “Half the horses had only been ridden for three months, but they all performed fantastically and the success of the ride entirely turned around community attitudes,” Chris says.

It gave traditional owners a renewed appreciation of the wild horses that roam their rugged backyard – so much so that several communities are now working with the Central Land Council (CLC) to develop feral- horse management plans, which include mustering horses for sale as part of small-scale local enterprises. Before that, steeds that make up one of the largest wild populations in Australia were often left to die of thirst or starvation in the summer heat each year.

Brumbies Kosciuszko National Park
Life is good for the grey roans of Kosciuszko, with plentiful feed and water in reach. Image credit: Jason Edwards

There’s no such problem in Kosciuszko National Park, where cooler year-round temperatures and summer snowmelt sustain lush grassy plains and whispering creeks within the headwaters of the Snowy, Murray and Murrumbidgee river systems. Here, wild mobs now estimated at 4000–8000 horses provide a thrilling sight for horse trekkers threading their way with Peter Cochran through shadowy forests of black sallee and mountain gums.

To Peter, a High Country cattleman with heritage dating back to European settlement, former member of Parliament and ardent brumby advocate, there’s a spiritual connection between families such as his and the Snowy Mountains brumby. “It’s a deep bond between the animal, the land and the people, and we are very protective of the brumbies,” he says.

To see a sleek black stallion shepherd his mares and offspring to safety – whinnying defiantly as he canters away, head held high, mane and nostrils flaring – is to witness something truly free. Wild horses are deeply embedded in our national psyche and roam the landscapes of our imagination, made famous by writers such as Elyne Mitchell (The Silver Brumby) and Banjo Paterson (notably The Man from Snowy River and Brumby’s Run). An introduced species first brought with European settlers, they are said to carry the bloodlines of horses exported to the British Army in India and the loyal beasts that carried our Australian Light Horse Brigade to success in the great cavalry charge at Beersheba in 1917.

Now numbering at least 1 million, our national herd – the world’s largest wild population – can grow at a rate of up to 20 per cent a year in good conditions. With few known predators, numbers fluctuate with the seasons. Our largest populations today are in the rocky ranges and arid plains of the Northern Territory and tropical grasslands of Queensland. They also favour the temperate ranges of New South Wales, subalpine and alpine areas of both NSW and Victoria, and the arid northern pastoral zone and Coffin Bay in South Australia. In Western Australia they are found in the Kimberley, east Pilbara and the northern goldfields.

But are they wild horses or feral pests? Galloping across our continent, they polarise opinion like few other introduced animals. Even to describe them as a feral animal, instead of a brumby, raises the hackles of supporters such as Peter Cochran. “We would 
like to see the state government acknowledge that the Snowy Mountains brumby has a permanent place in the park and to legislate to protect it. The horses symbolise freedom and are a part of Australia’s cultural identity,” he says.

However, for the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), brumbies are a major management challenge. 
The NPWS believes that the hard-footed beasts have an impact on the sensitive alpine and subalpine environments where nationally threatened sphagnum moss bogs support delicate creatures such as the she-oak skink and corroboree frog. There is also concern about the horses’ role in degrading water sources, spreading weeds and compacting soils in spots where they congregate in the park’s north-east and south. If they move onto the Main Range, 17 endemic species are potentially at risk.

“Horses are a majestic, beautiful animal in the right place,” says ranger Rob Gibbs, who is overseeing the review of Kosciuszko’s wild horse management plan. “But a lot of time and taxpayers’ money is being spent trying to manage them. There are simply too many horses causing too much damage.”

As both NSW and Victoria have sought to develop management strategies for public lands, the battle between conservationists and brumby defenders in recent years has at times degenerated into accusations and threats. Public surveys have illustrated the full breadth of views – from those who see wild horses as creatures of “mass disturbance” to those who regard them as “a triumph of nature” and a sacred link to a cherished heritage.

Rob believes that wild horse management is “tangled up with the dispossession and lingering resentment that cattlemen feel about losing their High Country grazing leases”. Peter Cochrane contests that the horses didn’t “begin to explode” until wilderness areas were declared.

Ironically, a 2013 report on the impact of horses in the Australian Alps concluded that their damage was “as bad as the worst historic grazing impacts to the high mountain catchments that triggered the 1940s removal of stock grazing from Kosciuszko National Park”. Horses have cultural, social and tourism value, but people have to realise “that value comes at a cost”, says Rob. “These ecosystems simply didn’t evolve with large, hard-hoofed animals. But it’s very difficult for native animals and ecosystems to compete with the romanticism of The Man from Snowy River.”

Peter Cochrane is a staunch supporter of wild horses. Image credit: Jason Edwards

On one thing most people do agree. Australia’s wild horse population needs to be reined in – especially in the more heavily populated and politically sensitive south-east. The question is how and by how much. Seasonal ‘passive trapping’ in national parks in NSW and Victoria, whereby horses are lured into trap yards with food and then trucked out, is both expensive (costing about $1000 per horse) and labour intensive. It is also limited to more accessible areas.

About one-third of the horses trapped are collected by non-profit organisations that prepare them for re-homing and domestic life. Member groups of the Australian Brumby Alliance (ABA), formed in 2009 to lobby the government for humane management, have found homes for about 960 horses in NSW, Victoria, Queensland and WA during the past decade. Thousands more have made the trip to an abattoir. 
Even so, passive trapping has barely kept pace with annual 
reproduction rates.

As authorities struggle to come up with acceptable control methods, some argue that euthanasing horses mustered into a trap yard is more humane than carting them up to 2000km to the nearest abattoir. Others are putting their faith in the current trial of a drug that renders mares infertile. Certainly aerial culling – outlawed in NSW after the shooting of 600 horses in Guy Fawkes River National Park in 2000 – is the most contentious option of all. Although this method is still used periodically in remote regions, a public raised with domestic horses largely finds the idea of horses being pursued and shot from helicopters unpalatable.

But in northern Queensland, that’s what was being considered in late 2015 after brumbies were declared a road hazard. Along the busy Bruce Highway that fringes the Clemant State Forest north of Townsville, two people died in separate accidents involving horses and the Queensland government moved to protect public safety.

“Lethal control by specialist and highly trained Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service marksmen is considered the most humane and effective solution,” said Steven Miles, Queensland National Parks minister. Elsewhere in the state, graziers have another gripe about wild horses, claiming they are competing with drought-stricken cattle for food and water, and costing the industry anywhere from $30 million to $60 million a year.

Ecologist Dr Dave Berman, who has studied wild horses around Australia since 1984, believes they pose one of the greatest land management challenges of our time. “They need to be tackled on a national scale and that approach needs to be holistic,” says Dave, who readily admits that his first showjumping horse was a brumby.

“We can’t just say that they are a pest. The history and mythology is important, too. They are a lovely animal but they are causing damage. There are too many horses breeding too quickly. We need to work with all the interest groups to find an agreed approach and consider all the methods available to manage our feral horses,” he adds. “Done properly, both shooting horses from helicopters and transporting them long distances can be acceptable. In places like the Snowy Mountains, with larger populations expanding, lethal methods of control are now necessary.”

A dead feral horse in a body of water
The deserts of the Red Centre challenge even the toughest wild horses. Image credit: Jason Edwards

One thing working in their favour, however, is that Australia’s wild horses have proven themselves adaptable and easy to train. Revered for their stamina, agility and sure footedness, former brumbies compete in a variety of arenas, from endurance riding and pony club competition to bush racing and showjumping. Jill Pickering, ABA president, says they have been used to support disadvantaged youth, in equine-assisted learning and even to rehabilitate prisoners.

But the alliance is keen to see the identification of a “viable, sustainable population number that will not overtax the landscape… When brumby numbers are kept in check so that they don’t over run the indigenous animals and plants, they help the land,” she says. “Their manure serves as a fertiliser and their cropping reduces the fire risk.”

People such as Erica Jessup, co-founder of the Guy Fawkes Heritage Horse Association, report increased demand for brumbies captured during trapping operations in national parks. “They have become very fashionable; they are the most versatile animals and we recently had a truckload go to SA and Gippsland,” she says.

Catherin McMillan, a portrait artist and brumby enthusiast from the NSW South Coast, prides herself in having owned a number of these “heritage horses” and currently has one in training. “Once they bond with you, they will jump through fire for you,” she says. “They are intelligent and so willing to please, and very patient with kids. My frail, elderly mother even rode one of my just-started brumbies. More people are starting to see brumbies as an asset and asking where they can get one.”

Attitudes – but of a very different kind – are also changing in the central deserts, according to Central Land Council spokesman Sam Rando. There was a huge outcry when an aerial cull was first mooted in May 2013 on Tempe Downs station, south-west of Alice Springs, to protect waterholes and cultural sites from feral horses. Some 24,000 people signed a petition in opposition.

“People were saying they should be captured and trucked to the coast and adopted out. They seemed to think that trucking was a benign option, but a lot of horses are killed or injured in the yards or during transport,” Sam says. “Indigenous people don’t like to see horses shot, but they see the degradation of country and horses starving or dying from a lack of water, and believe that shooting can be the more humane option, which has been supported by independent veterinarians. There is a lot of romantic, wishful thinking; the reality is much more difficult.”

Whichever side of the fence you sit on, wild horses are now an established part of the Australian landscape, just like feral donkeys and camels, deer and pigs. Land managers concede that they could never rid the country of all horses, even if they wanted to. That suits horse advocates, who regard them as noble emblems of the toughness and fighting spirit that characterises Australians.

For Antoinette Campbell, whose husband is Banjo Paterson’s only great-grandson, joining one of Peter Cochran’s riding treks in the Snowy Mountains in October 2015 was the fulfilment of a lifelong dream. “To read Banjo’s poetry and then experience the horses in the High Country, one cannot help but feel an amazing connection with these magnificent animals and the rawness of the plains that are their home,” she says.