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The effort to safeguard Victoria's Alpine National Park is hindered by the fact that wild horses are not familiar with state boundaries.
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The effort to safeguard Victoria’s Alpine National Park is hindered by the fact that wild horses are not familiar with state boundaries.


The trip from Cooma in the southern region of New South Wales to Native Cat Flat in Victoria’s Alpine National Park is an arduous journey on rough four-wheel-drive roads. For Richard Swain, a Snowy Mountains native and member of the Wiradjuri tribe, the journey is worthwhile. Our destination is a section of land with remaining vegetation, protected from the large population of over 2,700 wild horses in the national park and Bogong High Plains.

There are four areas marked off by simple wire fences. Within these boundaries, there is an abundance of sphagnum moss, dense plants, tufts of grass, shrubs, and herbs, all displaying an untouched alpine environment undisturbed by horses.

Aerial photo of exposure plot in Victoria’s Alpine national park

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The area beyond the boundary fence displays numerous indentations from hooves and the natural grasses have been excessively consumed. It resembles a pasture rather than a delicate alpine environment.

According to Swain, Australians need to embrace their role as custodians of this continent and live here as if it is their home.

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Swain, a river guide and ambassador for the Invasive Species Council, believes that the mindset of colonization still lingers in the high country, fueled by the nostalgic image portrayed in Banjo Paterson’s poems. However, the era of mountain cattlemen wearing oilskin coats and riding creaking saddles only spanned from 1840 to 1950. In 2005, a ban on grazing cattle was imposed in Victoria’s high country. Swain acknowledges that some still struggle to prioritize the recent cultural heritage over the preservation of natural values and native species.

Over the past 236 years, approximately 100 native species have become extinct in Australia since the arrival of European settlers. Swain is worried that the broad-toothed rat and alpine water skink, both critically endangered species found only in the high plains, could be the next to disappear.

hoofprint indentation in wetland vegetation

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According to Swain, our endangered species relies on this specific habitat within the wetland. However, there are only four small areas available, similar in size to a tennis court. The remainder of the wetland is maintained like a golf course. Swain believes this is a clear example of the impact horses have on mountainous areas.

Horses not only leave hoofprints, but also alter the ecosystem by breaking up vegetation.

According to Swain, the mountains provide a thick layer of vegetation which allows for a phenomenon known as the subnivean space. The cold snow does not freeze to the ground, but instead rests on top of the vegetation. This enables the mountain skinks to regulate their body temperature by choosing to be low or high in the vegetation. The broad-toothed rat also takes advantage of this vegetation, using it for tunneling rather than digging into the ground.

Brumbies in Nunniong state forestView image in fullscreen

Take care of the water.

Wayne Thorpe, a member of the Gunnai tribe, is witnessing the negative impact of invasive species on the seven main water sources in his region. This damage will eventually reach the ocean, including his residence at Lake Tyers. The Gunaikurnai people of East Gippsland traditionally migrated between the mountains and the coast, traveling from the Great Dividing Range to Ninety Mile Beach, and from Wilson’s Prom and Mount Baw Baw in the west to Snowy River and Bemm River in the east along the coastline.

Thorpe explains that water has the ability to retain memories, from its origins in the mountains to its journey towards the sea. Even as it flows through creeks and rivers, it carries the memories of being disturbed and impacted by human activity.

Wayne ThorpeView image in fullscreen

Feral horses, through their grazing, trampling, and soil compaction in wetlands, as well as their bathing behavior, disturb the stream and river ecosystems, resulting in erosion, bank slumping, nutrient imbalances, and reduced water quality. This is a major concern, according to Thorpe, as these horses roam in the areas where many of Australia’s biggest and most economically significant rivers originate, such as the Murray, Murrumbidgee, and Snowy rivers.

“Upon arrival, what beverages are individuals consuming? What type of water are marine creatures inhabiting? And what are we consuming as food?” Thorpe inquires.

“We need to increase our efforts in recruiting individuals to become caretakers of the land and its resources. If you enjoy consuming fresh fish, it is important to maintain and protect the health of our waterways.”

According to Deakin University’s terrestrial ecology professor Don Driscoll, neglecting alpine ecosystems could have far-reaching consequences for biodiversity.

According to him, the broad-toothed rat and alpine water skink are exclusive to the alpine region, whereas horses can be found across the continent and even on other continents.

Don DriscollView image in fullscreen

“If we are unable to safeguard these animals in their natural habitats and feel the need to relocate them, there is little chance for overall biodiversity. These creatures deserve the opportunity to thrive in the Alps, where they have evolved.”

In recent years, it has been a challenging time for researchers and government organizations as they have been cautioning about the consequences of feral horses. In 2018, the previous government of NSW implemented laws to acknowledge the cultural and historical significance of brumbies and to prohibit population management through culling. Meanwhile, in Victoria, there were reports of death threats against national parks staff due to their intention to cull through ground shooting.

In October, after gathering input from the public, a Senate investigation that concluded feral horses were endangering native species, and a warning from the federal threatened species committee, the Minns administration brought back aerial culling in Kosciuszko National Park.

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For brumby feature Brumbies, Nunniong Plain Nunniong State Forest Victoria 26 AustraliaView image in fullscreen

Driscoll states that the establishment of Labor administrations in New South Wales and at the federal level, along with the continued support for culling by the Victorian Labor government, has sparked some optimism among ecologists.

“For years, the scientific research was disregarded,” he states. “But now, it is being treated with importance.”

Parks Victoria does not disclose the exact number of horses removed, but instead focuses on their goal of removing 500 horses in the first year according to their 2021 plan for managing feral horses. However, Jordan Crook, the parks and nature advocate at the Victorian National Parks Association, asserts that there is visible evidence of a decrease in horse populations in the landscape.

However, he claims that the progress is being hindered due to New South Wales’ protection of feral horses.

According to the speaker, Victoria is making great progress in controlling its population of wild horses, especially in national parks. However, these animals are not restricted by state borders and can easily travel from New South Wales into Victoria.

The organization played a crucial role in the efforts that resulted in the establishment of the Alpine national park in 1989 and has consistently advocated for safeguarding the alps from livestock, horses, and other non-native species.

According to Crook, the alps and alpine region are extremely delicate due to their small size. Feral animals, such as horses, cause immense harm to these ecosystems and harm the wildlife that inhabit them.

Rehoming versus managing population size.

Some people who oppose the killing of brumbies see the establishment of national parks in recent years and the ban on grazing cattle in 2005 as an attack on their traditional way of life. The culling of feral horses only adds to their feelings of displacement and disconnection.

Claire Rogerson, who resides in Dalgety, NSW, is the creator of Snowy Brumby Horsemanship. Her main focus is on the rehabilitation and rehoming of brumbies, and she currently has 32 of these horses at her property in different stages of training.

Claire Rogerson with her son and two horsesView image in fullscreen

Trapping and rehoming is the solution put forward by Rogerson and many others who connect to a stockman’s view of the high country. But rehoming a brumby takes a high level of skill and feral horse population survey efforts show there are more horses than can reasonably be removed through trapping alone. An advertising campaign by Parks Victoria to rehome trapped brumbies saw only 10 expressions of interest from suitable homes, to take between 38 and 51 horses a year.

The population of wild horses in the Kosciuszko national park has grown by 31% in the last two years. According to a representative from Parks Victoria, the park has faced significant conservation issues due to invasive species, such as horses, as well as habitat destruction caused by bushfires and other effects of the climate crisis.

According to them, Parks Victoria is responsible for managing non-native species in Victoria’s national parks, such as wild horses.

“Illicit horses are present in significant quantities in alpine regions and their impact is clear,” they stated. “We have chosen the most compassionate methods for managing these feral horses based on expert recommendations.”

According to Swain, the deterioration of mountain valleys caused by non-native species can go unnoticed by those who are not familiar with the issue. This makes it difficult to gain public support for measures to protect the area from these visually appealing intruders.

“He believes that by repairing the land’s health and managing invasive species, we can move forward. The main danger to our indigenous species is invasive species, and the greatest obstacle is Australia’s lack of concern.”

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Source: theguardian.com