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.