A growing threat
When Europeans arrived in Australia they brought with them non-native species which through deliberate introductions, irresponsible abandonment and accidental escapes would spread across the landscape, out-compete Australia’s unique native species and degrade the natural environment.
Introduced animals such as pigs, deer, goats, horses, rabbits, foxes and cats, as well as a wealth of invasive plants such as the blackberry, scotch-broom and hawkweed now pose a significant challenge to conservation managers who fight to protect Australia’s natural biodiversity.
All of the above species are found in Kosciuszko National Park, and more. NSW’s National Park and Wildlife Service (NPWS) routinely undertakes control programs to mitigate the negative impacts of introduced species, as well as emergency management when required, as much as limited conservation budgets will allow.
For political and social reasons, the most difficult species to control are introduced horses – also referred to as brumbies, wild horses, nags and feral horses.
Horse populations grow in Kosciuszko
Horses first arrived on the First Fleet in 1788 and soon after, escaped and abandoned horses established populations in the wild. By the 1830s, horse populations were reported in Kosciuszko.
Historically, wild horse populations were regarded as a pest and were killed in large numbers by early pastoralists who saw them as competitors for their stock. The brutal control methods, including the ‘sport’ of brumby running, implemented in the 19th and 20th century would not meet today’s strict welfare standards for animal control.
Over time, the feral horse population grew. By the 1990s, damage to streambanks, native vegetation and moss bogs from horses were evident.
In the early 2000s it was estimated that a couple of thousand horses inhabited Kosciuszko National Park. NPWS started to remove horses from the alpine areas; meanwhile, horses continued to spread across the rest of the park.
In 2008 NPWS developed a park-wide management plan with a focus on passively luring horses to trap yards with molasses, hay and salt then removing the horses – either to be rehomed or sent to a knackery.
Between 2008 – 2019 an average of 270 horses were trapped and removed each year. However, trapping has not been able to keep up with the horse population growth rate of up to 23% per year.
In 2014 it was estimated that the feral horse population had reached ~6000 and in the latest survey conducted in 2020 it was estimated there around 14,000 horses in the park.
Thwarted management plans and a new hope
Following independent community consultation and scientific and animal welfare advice, NPWS developed a new horse management plan in 2016 to address the growing horse problem.
The plan sought a balance between social, cultural and environmental values and proposed a combination of trapping and removal, trapping and on-site culling, aerial mustering, ground shooting, fertility control and temporary fencing to manage Kosciuszko’s horse population.
This management plan was not adopted by the NSW government.
Instead, the NSW coalition introduced the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Act in 2018, spearheaded by National Party Leader, Member for Monaro and current Deputy Premier John Barilaro.
The Wild Horse Heritage Act 2018 prioritised an introduced species at the expense of native wildlife and the health of the precious, fragile alpine landscapes.
After three years of heavy campaigning, on Thursday, 24 November 2021, then NSW environment minister Matt Kean adopted a feral horse plan for Kosciuszko National Park.
The final plan promises a significant reduction in feral horses, but leaves one third of the park overrun by this damaging feral animal. The plan will reduce the horse population by 80% – from around 14,000 to 3000, over just five years. The retention of horses dictated by the Wild Horse Heritage Act is deeply worrying, however, compared to the slow removal rates over the past 20 years, this, if achieved, would be a significant improvement for horse control in the Kosciuszko.
The NSW Government is a signatory to the Australian Alps Memorandum of Understanding and is supposed to work with the Victorian, ACT and Australian governments to protect the Australian Alps.
However, horses do not recognise state boundaries, making it imperative that all governments work together to protect Kosciuszko National Park from multiple conservation threats, including feral horses.
Both the ACT and Victoria are actively attempting to control feral horses in their parts of the Australian Alps, but the lack of action by the NSW Government is hampering their efforts.
Frustration became so great that in February 2019 ACT environment minister Mick Gentleman called the NSW Government’s lack of action on feral horses ‘irresponsible’, and ACT Parks manager Brett McNamara warned the feral horses in NSW could increasingly enter and destroy the ACT’s water catchment areas near Namadgi National Park.
The ACT Government has an effective long-term policy to remove horses that move from NSW into the ACT. In 2018, the Victorian Government approved a science-based plan to reduce horse numbers in the adjoining Alpine National Park, which they renewed in 2021.
The NSW Government were the last to come to the table with the finalisation of a new Kosciuszko horse management plan late November 2021. The plan is awaiting implementation.
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Kosciuszko National Park from destructive feral horses.