I am a helicopter pilot. To me it’s a privilege to work in the air. I flew the media over the opening ceremony for the Sydney Olympics and the 2003 Rugby World Cup. Most years I do bushfire work – aerial ignition of hazard reduction burns, infra-red imaging, and water bucketing. I’ve taken passionate and committed people into remote places and watched their work – from saving the Little Penguins on Montague Island to restoring Corroboree Frog habitat in Kosciuszko and Namadgi. It’s a privilege that I feel comes with a responsibility to speak out when I see environmental damage that could be easily avoided.
In 2003, when I set up my helicopter business in Jindabyne, Kosciuszko National Park had just suffered devastating, high-intensity fires. The only wild horses that I saw were in the Snowy River valley. I watched a slow growth in horse numbers during the drought years that followed, and then a rapid increase from 2010 onwards. I began to see more mobs and bigger mobs in the northern part of the Park – Currango, Cooleman Plains and Long Plain. During this time I flew NPWS staff from Tumut on a survey, in which they counted horse numbers one autumn and re-counted them in spring – before and after their trapping program that removed 640 horses. The spring survey found horse numbers had actually increased. Those guys worked their guts out to remove those horses, but trapping is not the answer.
Many of my flights have been to sphagnum bogs in Kosciuszko and nearby areas. A healthy sphagnum bog is a beautiful sight. The sphagnum forms rolling green mounds and is just as essential to the bog’s animals and other plants as coral is to a reef. In the Dargals I watched NPWS ranger Dave Hunter find part of a sphagnum bog where corroboree frogs were nesting and mark the site with coloured tape. On our next trip to the same spot, we found the coloured tape was 75 mm deep in the bog, at the bottom of a horse hoofprint. Dave searched and searched for the frogs that he had heard there previously, and did not find a single one. But the story has a happy ending. NPWS focused their horse trapping program on that area, the bog recovered and at least some frogs returned.
I’m worried about one my favourite sphagnum bogs which we call by the unromantic name of Bog 47. It’s near Duck Creek (between Schlink Pass and Valentines Hut) in Kosciuszko National Park. It’s in great condition but the horses are spreading towards it. The horses have reached the Burrungabugee catchment, not far from Jagungal. If government policy stays as it is, it seems only a matter of time till they spread across all the Jangungal Wilderness Area.
The scientific evidence that wild horses are causing serious damage to the alpine areas is overwhelming. I have heard people say that evidence doesn’t count, that views of people who know the high country are more important. I am lucky enough to know the high country very well, from the air, and I see the damage and the horses almost every time I fly. It’s not the horses’ fault – it’s our fault, and we need to fix it.
Col de Pagter
Fenced plots, Cowombat Flat, from the air; the plots exclude horses but not smaller grazing animals.