Feral horses in Kosciuszko: Busting the myths

Background

In June 2018 the NSW parliament passed a law that protects feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park. Called the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Act 2018, it prioritises a harmful invasive species over the fragile ecosystems of a national park and world biosphere reserve.

The decision to ‘protect’ destructive feral horses in  Kosciuszko National Park at the expense of our native plants and animals sets a dangerous precedent for Australia’s threatened species and our protected areas.

We’ve busted ten myths surrounding feral horses below, but you can also download it as a fact sheet. References are at the bottom of this page.

Myth 1

Kosciuszko’s horses have a unique heritage and have always been protected by high country cattlemen.

 

Fact

Many Kosciuszko species are unique, but the feral horses found in the park are just like any other horse. Australia has more than 300,000 feral horses and there are no genetic traits to distinguish the Kosciuszko horses from them or domestic horses.

Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, wild horses in NSW were regarded as a nuisance and a pest, and were regularly killed to control numbers. The horses of Kosciuszko that had been in low numbers for about 150 years have little more heritage value than the foxes, pigs, rabbits and other invasive animals in the national park. What heritage value they do have can be preserved outside the park. The highly significant heritage values of water catchments and unique alpine habitats are under threat from uncontrolled horse numbers.

Myth 2

Kosciuszko’s horses are descended from horses that went to war with Australian soldiers.

 

Fact

Kosciuszko’s horses are not descendants of horses used in World War 1 (these horses were not returned to Australia). The Kosciuszko population has descended from horses that escaped from local farms or were deliberately released. Nor is there clear evidence that horses were even taken from the Kosciuszko population for the war effort. Such horses came from many places in Australia.

Image: Cgoowin  |  CC BY-SA 4.0

Myth 3

There aren’t many horses in Kosciuszko.

 

Fact

The latest detailed aerial survey in 2014 found 6000 feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park. This is far too many horses for sensitive alpine ecosystems, and experts say the number will continue to grow by 6 to 17% a year. There is overwhelming scientific evidence that current numbers are causing severe damage. A recent study of horses on the Bogong Plains found that ‘with even a small number of animals, the rate of damage is greater than the rate of natural repair’. The NSW government’s 2016 draft strategy for controlling feral horses in Kosciuszko said their population should be reduced by 90% over 20 years.

Myth 4

Horses in Kosciuszko don’t cause much damage.

 

Fact

Australia’s alpine plants and animals did not evolve with heavy, hard-hoofed animals and many rely on habitats that are now being severely damaged by horses. In both NSW and Victoria, the scientific committees advising the governments on threatened species have concluded that feral horses are a major threat in alpine and sub alpine habitats. The NSW committee found that ‘habitat damage in streams, wetlands and adjacent riparian systems occurs through selective grazing, trampling, track creation, pugging (soil compaction), wallowing, dust bathing leading to stream bank slumping and destruction, stream course disturbance and incision and sphagnum bog and wetland destruction.

Myth 5

Horses do not go into the sensitive areas of Kosciuszko.

 

Fact

All of Kosciuszko is sensitive to damage by feral horses. The greatest horse impacts have been focused in the most sensitive areas, especially wetlands, waterways, alpine and sub-alpine areas. Horse herds move annually into Main Range during spring and summer and they have also been seen on the alpine plateaus.

Myth 6

Horse grazing prevents fires in Kosciuszko.

 

Fact

The popular claim that ‘grazing prevents blazing’ is not supported by science. Horses do not feed on the shrubs and unpalatable tussocky grasses that carry fire in extreme conditions, such as occurred in the catastrophic fires of 1939 and 2003. There is, however, some evidence of the converse – that grazing by feral horses and cattle can increase the intensity of bushfires by removing ground cover, resulting in denser scrub. The damage caused by severe fires is intensified by horses after fires due to the erosion and degradation they cause.

Myth 7

Pigs, deer and foxes are the real problems in Kosciuszko, not horses.

 

Fact

Introduced pigs, deer, goats, rabbits and foxes also threaten Kosciuszko’s natural values and are controlled by park managers through trapping, baiting, and aerial and ground shooting. Feral horses are an even bigger threat and should be managed just like other harmful feral animals.

Myth 8

Kosciuszko horses are a major tourist attraction.

 

Fact

Several surveys show the main activities of visitors to Kosciuszko are snow sports, walking, car touring, sightseeing and nature appreciation. Many visitors like seeing horses in the distance, but closer up are appalled by degraded and dung fouled picnic and camping areas, polluted and damaged streams and wetlands caused by the horses. Some visitors find the horses intimidating. Feral horses are undermining the major tourism assets of the park – the natural beauty and diverse wildlife.

Myth 9

Aerial shooting is inhumane.

 

Fact

The RSPCA supports professionally managed aerial culling of feral horses in Kosciuszko. An expert committee appointed by the NSW government to advise on feral horse control concluded that aerial culling is the most humane and effective method of control in Kosciuszko. There are strict protocols to maximise welfare outcomes. Trapping and transporting horses for slaughter causes much more suffering than shooting.

Myth 10

Rehoming and fertility control are solutions.

 

Fact

Fertility control in an area the size of Kosciuszko is not feasible. Trapping, the current main control method, is also ineffective because it cannot keep up with the rate of increase. Where regular trapping has occurred horse numbers have increased.

Over the past decade an average of fewer than 100 trapped horses a year have been rehomed, despite extensive advertising and liaison with brumby groups.

References

MYTH 1

Some newspaper articles from the late 1800s and early 1900s on feral horses in NSW:

 

MYTH 2

  • Australian War Memorial (2018) ‘Sandy (Major General Sir William Bridges’ horse)’
    >> https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/encyclopedia/horses/sandy
  • Melville, G., Johnston, C., Doyle., H & McLay, C (2015) ‘National Cultural Heritage Values Assessment & Conflicting Values Report: the Wild Horse Population Kosciuszko National Park’, Context Pty Ltd

 

MYTH 3

Kosciuszko Science Conference Abstracts:

Number of horses in Australia:

  • Dawson M. J., Lane C., and Saunders G., (2006) ‘Proceedings of the National Feral Horse Management Workshop’. Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre: Canberra.
  • Dobbie W. R., Berman McK. D., and Braysher M. L., (1993) ‘Managing Vertebrate Pests: Feral Horse.’ Australian Government Publishing Service: Canberra.

Number of horses and population increases in Kosciuszko National Park:

2016 Kosciuszko Draft Wild Horse Management Plan:

Bogong High Plains feral horse impacts:

 

MYTH 4

  • Ansong M, Pickering C (2013) A global review of weeds that can germinate from horse dung. Ecological Management and Restoration 14, 216–223.
  • Beever, E. A. , Tausch, R. J. , and Brussard, P. F. (2003) Characterizing disturbance in semiarid ecosystems across broad spatial scales using multiple indices Ecological Applications 13, 119–136.
  • Berman M. D., and Jarman P. J. (1988) Feral horses in the Northern Territory. Vol. 4: Environmental impact of feral horses in central Australia. Conservation Commission of the Northern Territory, Darwin.
  • Bishwokarma D, Freudenberger D, Pulsford I (2015) Preliminary investigation into the impact of pest horses on the white cypress pine – white box woodlands of Kosciuszko National Park. Report to National Parks & Wildlife Service, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, Department of Planning and Environment, Jindabyne
  • Wild A, Poll M (2012) Impacts of feral horses on vegetation and stream morphology in the Australian Alps: Feral horse exclusion plot monitoring and analysis. Report to the Friends of the Cobberas, Parks Victoria and the Australian Alps Liaison Committee.
  • Worboys GL, Pulsford I (2013) Observation of Pest Horse Impacts in The Australian Alps.
    >> https://invasives.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Pest_Horse_Impacts_to_Australian_Alps_Catchments_Worboys_and_Pulsford_2013.pdf (accessed 2nd February 2017).

 

MYTH 5

 

MYTH 6

 

MYTH 7

 

MYTH 8

  • Worboys, G.L. & Pickering C.M. (2002). ‘Managing mountain ecotourism at Kosciuszko National Park, Australia’, Proceedings of the Forth Conference on the Protected Areas of East Asia – Benefits Beyond Boundaries in East Asia, Taiwan Organizing Committee for the Forth Conference of the Protected Areas of East Asia, Taipei.
  • Worboys, G.L. & Pickering C.M. (2004). ‘Tourism and recreation values’. In: Independent Scientific Committee (Ed), An assessment of the values of Kosciuszko National Park, pp 179-224, New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service, NSW.

 

MYTH 9

 

MYTH 10

Regional Pest Management Strategy 2012-17, Southern Ranges Region.
>> https://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/-/media/OEH/Corporate-Site/Documents/Parks-reserves-and-protected-areas/Pest-management-strategies/regional-pest-management-strategy-southern-ranges-region-120374.pdf

Supporting Reclaim Kosci

Reclaim Kosci is led by the Invasive Species Council and supported by the National Parks Association of the ACT, National Parks Association of NSW, Colong Foundation for Wilderness and the Nature Conservation Council of NSW.