Wild Brumbies: Part Of Australia's History But Not Our Ecosystem

They're a living remnant of our nation's stockman history, but they're destroying our protected parks.

13/05/2016 8:38 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:52 PM AEST
Fairfax Media
Wild brumbies in Kosciuszko National Park.

I didn't expect to be in awe.

In the crisp, alpine light of Kosciuszko National Park, they stood, stock still on the path in front of me.

Five wild brumbies, guardedly watching this interloper on their territory. But here's the rub, it's not their territory at all, and their presence in the park is causing devastating erosion in the only true alpine zone in mainland Australia.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service previously controlled brumby numbers in the same way as they do other feral species -- through culls.

Yet unlike foxes and rabbits, the killing of horses sparked widespread outrage.

After all, brumbies are a living remnant of our nation's proud stockman history. They carry a noble air not necessarily shared by the animals they displace, like the endangered corroboree frog.

Wild Brumbies in the snowies.

There are more brumbies than ever before in Kosciuszko National Park with a recent study estimating 6000 horses, and the Draft Wild Horse Management Plan, now on public exhibition, aims to halve the population in a decade, and then further reduce it to 600 horses in 20 years.

The Brumby Legend

When Europeans first traversed the Snowy Mountains in the 1830s, they did so on horseback.

Horses first arrived in Australia after being bundled on boats with convicts and settlers from Europe.

They allowed people to explore terrain, set up farms and drove long distances.

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Men droving horses through the Snowy River in 1933.
Today's brumbies trace back to these bloodlines and advocacy group Save Our Brumbies describes them as a "national icon" -- a unique symbol of the rugged, exploratory days of European arrival.

National Parks Association chief executive Kevin Evans, however, said they brought with them something no other Australian native animal had.

"They're hard hoofed," Evans told The Huffington Post Australia.

"The Australian landscape hasn't evolved to accommodate hard hoofed species so they cause terrible erosion.

"With the current number of feral horses there now, they're doing incredible damage to the ephemeral water systems we find in upland Australia."

Australia's Alpine Region

There are places in Kosciuszko National Park rarely seen by people, and Evans said he was lucky enough to have seen some of its more remote sections.

"Those lucky enough see it are absolutely astonished at the extraordinary beauty," Evans said.

"Think of the snow gums for example. Some are a thousands of years old and they're all gnarly and beautiful and shining bright with the snow and the sun.

"This is a globally unique landscape and many people don't realise it's such an incredibly fragile ecosystem in our alpine areas."

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Mount Kosciuszko is part of the rare, beautiful region of the national park.

You can tell how many brumbies are in an area by looking at the bogs, marshes and streams created by snow melt.

Evans said their impact was hard to miss.

"Their hoofs break up the banks causing erosion and they stand in the water and urinate and defectate, which changes that river's pH," Evans said.

These waterways are the only habitat of the striking, endangered corroboree frog and a change of pH means the frogs can't survive.

"There are already so few corroboree frogs left."

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The endangered Corroboree Frog lives in 'ephemeral' bogs that exist when snow melt is flowing.

Nature Conservation Council communications manager James Tremain said the challenge was to make people feel as strongly for the corroboree frog as they do the brumbies.

"Look at these frogs, it's the cutest little guy and why would anyone want to lose them?" Tremain said.

"What people have got to remember is feral horses actually are a pest causing damage, not some romantic idea of days of yore.

"This is a serious modern problem that needs serious modern techniques to control the population."

Controlling Wild Horses

Gruesome images of horse carcasses spread across the nation in 2000. Not long after the Olympic Games, when the Man From Snowy River was lauded as one of Australia's defining stories, an aerial cull of feral horses in Guy Fawkes National Park was jarring, to say the least.

Save The Brumbies called it a "helicopter massacre" and even those supporting the cull were moved by the graphic imagery.

In 2002, National Parks and Wildlife Service focused on trapping horses, not shooting them.

Since the program began, the service removed more than 3000 horses and 18 percent were domesticated while the rest were sent to an abattoir.

In this regime, the population has ballooned to its largest number and Evans said the new draft plan currently on display needed to work if we were to protect the fragile ecosystem.

On the other side, a petition against the new plan has garnered more than 4000 signatures from people calling the brumbies a tourist attraction.

NSW Environment Minister Mark Spearman said he was aware of the emotions surrounding brumbies when launching the latest plan.

"Wild horse management is an emotive and complex issue," Speakman said.

"There are diverse opinions in the community and often deeply held views which polarise stakeholder groups.

"It is clear, however, that the broader community values the unique environmental values of Kosciuszko National Park and looks to NPWS to protect these values."

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Corroboree Frogs are threatened by brumbies.

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