The “save-the-brumby” debate has kicked off again recently and I’ve been asked a bit what’s the sitch is so I thought I’d share some perspective. I’ve tried to summarise the scientific part (the political gets messy).
As a horse rider and lover of nearly 20 years I understand why we would want to support this cause. Horses are beautiful, charismatic and exciting to spot poetically flowing through the trees. Domestic horses provide so much for us, and they definitely have a place in our life.
But, the problem is a lot more complicated than some people just wanting to shoot animals. To jump on the save-the-brumby bandwagon without understanding the full picture is irresponsible.
Do you identify as a general lover of animals and biodiversity? Do you have a drive to conserve wilderness areas for their vast endemism, beauty, social, recreational, ecological, hydrological, economic and indigenous value? If so, I urge you to consider the details.
Australia accounts for ~five percent of the world’s landmass, yet ~12.5% of chordate species (i.e. a classification which includes vertebrates) and ~8% of all described plant, animal and fungi species. The majority of these species occur nowhere else on earth, with >85% of Australia’s plants, mammals, reptiles and amphibians being endemic. National Parks and conservation areas reserved for protecting native biodiversity make up only 11.5% of the Australian landmass and will inevitably shrink in response to human population growth and expansion of development. Australia has the highest mammal extinction rate of any country.
One of the largest threats to our native our wildlife is invasive species. They impact 1,257 species of ours. ~82% of which are trending towards extinction as a result. Inappropriate fire regimes, habitat loss and agricultural impacts are also responsible. We record loss of at least one native species to extinction every year. The number is likely much higher due to the incredible diversity and inability to describe them all before we lose them (side note: keep your cats inside, please).
Horses are not native to Australia. They are an introduced species. Impacts by horses are listed under NSW state legislation (Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016) as a key biodiversity threatening process. Listed by research experts with decades of experience in the field. Australian vegetation did not evolve to cope with large hoofed animals, we only have small soft footed native herbivores whose grazing habits are very different, adapted to live in this nutrient poor landscape. Direct impacts of horses in native vegetated areas include but are not limited to: pugging and erosion of water ways and drainage lines (the top 10cm of all soil holds all the native seed bed, nutrient content and regenerative capacity. It takes 1000+ of years for a soil profile to recover), increased turbidity of water ways, inhibiting capacity as an aquatic habitat, spread of invasive weeds which out compete and smother our native plants, destroy native plants by grazing and trampling, foul waterholes, collapse wildlife burrows, compete with native animals for food and shelter, spread disease and pose a risk to public safety – on high speed roads and highways. Additionally, they are not native and consequently have no natural predators here controlling their numbers and the natural equilibrium.
An area that free roaming horses impact heavily in Australia is the Alpine bioregion. This region makes up only 0.1% of the Australian landmass. This is the only place where snow falls and sticks. The Australian alpine bioregion covers 1% of the Murray-Darling Basin catchment area but contributes ~30% of its’ water yield. The Murray-Darling Basin catchment system feeds much of Australia and provides a large portion of our exports. 40% of the country’s annual agricultural production come from here – worth ~$3 billion per annum.
Three springs within the Australian alpine area make up the source of the Murray river, the beginning of the whole Murray-Darling Basin catchment. Sphagnum bogs (a type of wetland which behaves like a sponge) are responsible for retaining moisture along these alpine water ways. They release water slowly, year-round, nourishing the immediate habitat and subsequent system downstream constantly and dependently. Without them, rainfall events (which are increasingly few and far between) cause sheet and gully erosion, causing loss of regenerative capacity, blocking the waterways, smothering everything below, and impacting agricultural practices downstream. This same water exclusively runs the country’s largest hydroelectric scheme (the Snowy Hydro); a clean and renewable energy source which produces ~%40 of mainland renewable electricity generation.
Horses, among other introduced ungulates (hooved animals), are incising, trampling and destroying these critically endangered and integral Sphagnum bog communities. Additionally, horses directly impact 39 native species and communities (google Burramys parvus and/or Pseudophryne corroboree for cuteness). Read points 6 to 11 within this determination for a list of impact mechanisms, supported by years of ongoing research.
It is true and often pointed out that other introduced ungulates cause damage too. The difference is all these species are controlled as a result. In April 2020 alone 561 pest animals were removed from Kosciuszko; 192 fallow deer, 149 sambar deer, 14 red deer, 96 pigs, 105 goats, 4 wild dogs and 1 fox were aerial culled in Kosciusko national park. Feral pig numbers are estimated to be between 1 and 20 per square kilometre, equating to somewhere between 8,000 and 158,000 pigs existing in the Australian alpine area, at least 15% of which are culled annually. It is also often claimed that we can’t dissociate between impacts of each species. Camera trapping and dung transects used to calculate population density indicate otherwise. My own research (read here) as an example: In 1987, no evidence of horses or deer from dung surveys, only rabbits and kangaroos. In 2018, density had significantly changed. 84% of the dung was from horses, 13% from deer, 1% from rabbits and 2% from macropods. Total herbivore dung density increased fourfold since the 1987 survey. Native herbivores have been driven out and replaced by introduced ones.
In 2014 there were an estimated 9000 horses in the Australian Alps – an area that consists of eleven protected national parks and nature reserves across NSW, ACT and Victoria. There are now an estimated 25,000+ horses in this area and growing. That is a population growth rate of 23% per annum.
More than 25,000 horses are roaming here. Remember this is one small place conserved for native biodiversity. Remember there are more than 58,000,000 horses in the world. There are more than 400,000 introduced horses across Australia. But there is only one delicate Australian alpine bioregion. Only one mountain pygmy possum. Only one southern corroboree frog. Only one Murray-Darling Basin.
If you have a medical issue, you would ask a doctor, right? If you want to cook something delicious, you consult a chefs’ cook book? You would ask a mechanic if you had issues with your car? All these experts spend years honing their knowledge to make their craft work the best they can. Why are conservation experts ignored? They don’t want to kill horses because it’s fun and they hate them. They do it because they love and care for the health of the whole ecological system and we can’t simply sacrifice the whole for one charismatic one. They recommend a cull because it has been intricately researched to be the best action for the greatest benefit.
Are you a vegan or vegetarian? If not, claiming the inhumaneness of shooting would be hypocritical. The standards by which an invasive species hunter must abide by are equal or higher than those for commercial abattoirs. Leaving an unsustainable density of horses who are unadapted to the oldest terrestrial, most drought stricken, nutrient poor landscape to starve, is arguable crueller. Alternatively, inducing great stress by rounding up an animal which has never been handled and trucked away doesn’t sound much better. Watch here for what a round up looks like.
A majority (i.e. 20,000) of the horses in the Australian Alps can be found in Kosciuszko National Park. 99 of the 20,000+ horses in Kosciuszko’s Alpine area were trapped for removal in November last year. For the first time in more than a year due to lapse in management while addressing this debate. Before the devastation of the bushfires had ensued. 68 animals were re-homed. 31 were either sent to a knackery (n = 28), in such poor condition they were euthanised (n = 2), or sustained fatal injuries as a result of the trapping (n = 1). On average, 18% of horses trapped in Kosciuszko National Park annually go to homes. There is no demand for the remaining which consequently end up at an abattoir. Furthermore, rounding up or trapping a horse costs significantly more per head than ground or aerial shooting. An expense tax payers wear.
It is not suggested that horses be eradicated from the whole continent, merely excluded from the extremely limited and delicate conservation areas that exist to protect native biodiversity, not as an uncontrolled horse breeding pen. I’ll point out that here that brumbies are not their own species. They are just horses. Which at a worldwide population of 58,000,000+ are very far from being eradicated.
No one is fighting for invasive pigs, goats or camels. They’re not cute enough. And so conservation experts go on controlling them appropriately. The only difference here is horses are pretty and we ride them sometimes. I don’t think the 200 years (or less) horses have spent here match up to the 55 million our native wildlife have, or the 60,000 our Aboriginal people have spent caring for the land. Colonialist ideas are ruining native Australian habitat constantly. These really are just normal horses who don’t happen to be fenced. Every other introduced species that causes damage in conservation areas are controlled, I’m unsure why this one should be treated differently?
By Jessica Ward-Jones
Jess Ward-Jones is a research student, technical officer and teaching associate at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University specialising in alpine landscape ecology. As a Canberra local, she enjoys skiing and hiking through Namadgi and Kosciuszko NP.