As a pony-mad child, one of my favourite books was, “The Silver Brumby”. The story followed the daily life of a herd of wild horses that eked out a meagre living in the Snowy Mountains of Australia. When the story was set back in the 1950s, there was no perceived ‘problem’ with overpopulation of the countryside by wild horses, and no authorised cull as has been seen in more recent times.
Today the Brumbies still live wild in the Kosciuszko National Park in the Snowy Mountains, protected by a cessation in aerial culling activities that was further extended this year by the Australian government in response to pressure from animal rights groups. However, there are still calls for a reinstatement of the cull in order to control growing numbers of the species; maintain current populations, or even wipe the Brumbies out altogether.
The perceived problem
The Australian Environment Minister is certainly faced with a dilemma. There’s no doubt that with no natural predators to keep them in check, numbers of wild horses are spiralling upwards rapidly. The public clearly find the idea of shooting the horses from helicopters repugnant, and rightly so. Some horses are killed outright, but many are merely wounded and left to die a lingering and painful death days or even weeks afterward. The horses are shot randomly with no discrimination between old or young, fit or weak.
Although they have long been recognised as Australia’s wild horse, the Brumby is not actually a native species. The alleged problem is the damage the herds of horses cause to wetlands, streams and riverbeds largely due to the erosion caused by their movement across the territories they adopt. Since the ban on culling the horses in 2000, the government reports that their numbers have increased from 1,500 to around 6,000.
The proposed solution is to manage horse numbers by catching and removing the animals, then domesticating them, breaking them in, and selling them. However the National Parks Association is sceptical and insists that the species should be completely eradicated in order to protect the ‘fragile’ environment in which they live. Merely catching the horses in order to re-home them could see many condemned to an unknown fate. The unpalatable truth is rather that it’s cheaper and quicker to shoot the horses.
It costs an estimated $1,000 to remove and re-home an individual horse, and so far over $2.8 million has been spent since 2002 when the program started. About a third of the horses removed from the Snowy Mountains have been re-homed; the rest were sent to abattoirs for slaughter.
The Director of the Colong Foundation for Wilderness insisted that the decision to continue the ban on aerial culling was a ‘disaster’ for the park. He insisted that the ‘iconic bush heritage’ of the area would be ruined if the horses were allowed to remain. A spokesman for the Snowy Mountains Brumby Sustainability and Management Group disagreed, stating categorically that, “there is no issue with damage caused by horses”. Furthermore, he insists that the population of Brumbies is much lower than the 6,000 estimated at around 2,500 which is more than sustainable for the acreage over which they range.
The Brumby has been described as a quintessential Australian symbol that has a place in the environment. Australia currently has the biggest population of wild horses in the world with an estimated 400,000 distributed across the country. Surely visitors to this beautiful land would rather enjoy the magnificent sight of wild, untamed animals roaming as nature intended than an empty barren landscape strewn with bleached bones and empty bullet casings?
Interestingly, it appears that the mountain bikers who enjoy riding through the park do not inflict damage on the trails they use. Of course, they will no doubt have to pay for the privilege unlike the horses that live there.
Image source: canberratimes.com.au