Leafless trees stood on bare slopes. The forest was silent. The only movement came from eddies of wind, swirling ash into the air…
Yesterday, some friends and I drove the re-opened Snowy Mountains Highway to see how Kosciuszko’s feral horses had fared in the fires. Last time I travelled on this road, in November, the horses were the dominant animals in the landscape. So, we were expecting the grim sight of large, charred bodies. That’s not what we found. But there were plenty of other heart-breaking sights on the way.
Before I go any further, I should declare that I am part of the Reclaim Kosci campaign and I think feral horse numbers in Kosciuszko should be massively reduced, by a range of humane means including ground and aerial shooting. But not by inhumane means, and certainly not by the terror and suffering of death in a bush fire.
My companions on the drive were environmental campaigner Alison Swain, ecologist Dr Don Fletcher and my husband Peter. As we drove into Kosciuszko National Park, we were happy to see that the green crowns of many of the trees were untouched.
Then the green faded to black, and we were surrounded by a devastated landscape. Leafless trees stood on bare slopes. The forest was silent. The only movement came from eddies of wind, swirling ash into the air.
At Alpine Creek we were saddened to find our first casualty – a red-necked wallaby. It was alive, upright and not visibly burnt, but too exhausted to manage anything more than one small hop. It was panting constantly and a thin stream of saliva trailed from its mouth. Distressed silence filled the car, as we looked at this animal’s pain. There was nothing we could do but report its location to a local wildlife group.
In a nearby gully we found another wallaby, in better condition. It was alert and hopping around, but some of its movements were tentative, indicating burn injuries to its feet.
It had chosen a good place for survival. Though the gully was completely burnt, its boggy soil had retained some moisture. New green shoots covered the banks of the small, clear-flowing creek.
Don, an expert in total grazing pressure, explained that the next two months were crucial for wallabies like this one. Feral horses would be their main competitor for food. Each day, a fully-grown horse needs to eat 25 to 30 times as much grass as a wallaby. Horses are big, they usually travel in groups, and their hooves are hard. If many horses had survived, this wallaby’s chances were not looking good.
We continued on our way, looking for horses. The first one we found had not survived the fire – a big grey stallion. It was lying by the banks of the Eucumbene River near Kiandra.
It was surrounded by blackened tussocks. Grass does not usually burn as hotly or as fast as forest, but the fire that had swept past Cabramurra and Selwyn and into Kiandra was, to use the word that has been synonymous with this summer, unprecedented. The horse’s body was being returned to the soil by hundreds of maggots. It’s going to be a good summer for maggots in Kosciuszko.
We continued north along the highway, taking short walks into the bush and on to the southern end of Long Plain. Every few minutes, we came across more horses – lives ones. They trotted across the landscape with every sign of good health. The largest group contained around 31 horses.
Though some of Long Plain has burnt, crucial oases of green country remain. These will be vital to sustain herbivores such as wombats and wallabies until next summer but they are dominated by the horses. No doubt there will be some horses that did not survive, in other parts of the national park, and some will have survived in areas with little feed. But we saw no horses with signs of injury from the fires (other than the dead one previously mentioned) although it was easy to see that many of the stallions had scars from bite marks inflicted in fights. Clearly the horses fared much better in the fire than we had expected from what happened after the 2003 fires.
From what we could see in this northern section of Kosciuszko, the horses have come out of the fires well ahead of the native animals. It’s time for the NSW government to intervene.
Though the fires in Kosciuszko have brought devastation, they have also brought opportunity. Forests which previously hid deer, pigs, foxes and feral horses are now open to aerial surveillance. Animals are concentrating in the unburnt areas. As soon as the immediate threat of the fires has passed, the NSW government should start culling feral animals, by all available humane methods. The message from the wallaby in the gully, its four human friends, and Kosciuszko’s native animals, is that the government’s actions over the next couple of months are a matter of life and death.
By Linda Groom
Linda Groom volunteers for Reclaim Kosci and is a member of Canberra Bushwalkers. Linda coordinated the Save Kosci 560km protest walk from Sydney to Mount Kosciuszko in November and December 2018.
Brilliant piece Linda and Don. If the government can make a quick decision on the camels then it is imperative they move quickly on the horses .
That would have been a hard day for all of you. Thank you for your passion.
Minister Kean gave strong support to protecting the Wollomi Pines from fire. We will seek his support for an urgent, humane cull of feral animals, particularly horses, in Kosciuszko National park, while they are easy to find and can be significantly reduced in numbers. This will give surviving native wildlife a much better chance of post-fire recovery.
This is a very informative and helpful summary thank you. I agree now is the best time to efficiently and humanely find and remove the ferals, while they are congregating in the grassy areas. I hope the ecologist in your party can provide this message directly to the NPWS scientists and rangers NPWS.
I was a responsible breeder of horses; a lover of horses. I love Australia too. Our Government must take this opportunity to humanely and severely cull wild horses and any other feral species. The Native flora and fauna must be given a fair chance to recover their place in the Australian landscape. I believe that every last horse should be removed from Kosciusko.
Thanks for your report on KNP after the fires. It seems the horses used their speed to avoid the fire front. It is good to know that there are unburnt areas. They will be vital in enabling the native wildlife of KNP to survive. It is urgent that horse numbers are much reduced by aerial shooting. This might be funded from some of the $50m being provided by Canberra for wildlife recovery. Of course, that would require changes to the NSW legislation that protects these feral pests.
Tragedy like this calls for a prompt and humane response.
Dealing with the feral horses is sound management of the fragile environment of flora and fauna and a sensible means of promoting the maximum recovery of the Park from the ravaging fires. It’s also a sound contribution to preserving the integrity of our scant water resources emanating from the Kosciuszko mosses and swamps .
Minister, are you ready to act?
Hear rending Linda. Thank you Peter and others for this report I’ll fw to others
Linda and others
Thank you for taking the trip and recording these grim observations. Urgent action is certainly needed to protect the food source for the native animals.
Thank you for this excellent report Linda.
It’s bad enough to see our native wildlife getting smashed by the bush fires without additional pressures from uncontrolled pests such as feral horses, deer and pigs.
The NSW Government needs to act quickly, and begin culling these destructive feral animals as soon as possible.
Allowing 25000 feral horses in Kosciusko National Park is a crime against the environment. Scientific investigation put the sustainable population at 600 ( John Barolo is guilty of a gross failure of leadership). We have a few short years to right the enormous environment damage done since European settlement.
Humans as a species have lost touch with the natural environment.
It is essential that any u nburnt or recovering pasture is available for the survival of our native animals and not consumed and trampled by ferals.
Agree with you. There is a lot of work to be done and possibly a lot of opposition to overcome. Good luck with your efforts.
Thank you for the news Linda. I was hoping that the fires may have killed a lot of the feral horses, but from your report it looks like they have not been reduce in number. SO important to stat the shooting campaign on the feral horses straight away. Also any other feral animals must be shot now too.
Can we hope that a govt National Park iniative to begin a project to start aerially shooting all ferals,pig,deer and horses begin asap ??
Excellent information and thanks for the update. I hope the government takes your advice and starts to reestablish some sort of balance in the park! Keep up the good work. Barb & Chris De Bruine
Barbara its Kylie Amps please email me [email protected]
Horses and cattle should not be in this park. The cattle were excluded some years back so why allow horses to take over our National Park and ruin this unique vegetation. They spread thistles as their stomachs do not break down the seed like cattle. Our native animals and frogs surely deserve a better chance if the new burnt bush does not have such severe competition from all these horses.
Completely horrific, why are horses regarded as more valuable than any other animals in the Park and protected by the Government. I fail to understand.
Excellent report. Hopefully the NSW Government under a newish Minister will commence resurveying the areas to confirm feral animal numbers and gets serious about reducing horse numbers. Its also clear that a massive effort is needed to protect vulnerable native species not just in Kosci but in all fire affected areas.