A decision by Parks Victoria to eradicate all brumbies from the Barmah National Park within the next three years has intensified the clash between conservation agencies and brumby advocates.
One side considers free-roaming horses to be destructive, invasive pests that don’t belong in the Australian landscape. The other believes that having lived there for over 200 years, these animals, descendants of the working horses that contributed to European settlement, are now an integral part of the forest and Australia’s cultural heritage.
The passionate and polarised views are stifling discussions but, according to Renee Neubauer, former President of Project Hope Horse Victoria and a member of the Barmah Brumbies Hay Angels, a group that formed to help horses and other wildlife through the 2018-2018 drought, there are factors and options that need to be seriously considered before the imminent eradication program begins.
In this article, Renee describes the situation these horses find themselves in and some of the initiatives that could allow their sustainable presence in the Barmah National Park.
The Barmah Forest
The Barmah National Park is a wetland that lies adjacent to the Murray River near the town of Barmah, approximately 225 kms north of Melbourne. European settlers arrived in the area during the mid 1800s and soon, the township now known as Barmah became a river outlet for transporting wool along Australia’s longest river, which flows westwards from the Alps all the way to Adelaide, in South Australia.
Timber, cattle and wool were the mainstay economy and the Barmah Muster Yards still stand today as a reminder of the vast pastoral activity. Dating back to the 1880s, these Muster Yards are Heritage listed and used each April for the well-attended Barmah Muster.
Back in the mid 1850’s before mechanisation, draft horses were a farmer’s tractor and when the workhorses were done for the season, they were turned out into what was called the Barmah ‘common’ – a paradise of green serenity for the horses to rest and recover until they were mustered-up for the next season’s work. Of course, not all were recovered every season and some remained roaming free in Barmah.
The start of World War I in 1914 saw many local lads enlist in the war efforts, so they too turned out their horses. Tragically, many never made it back from war so their horses remained free. These are the founding stock of the Barmah brumbies.
Much later, in the 1950’s, a local trainer of Standardbreds fell on hard times and released some of his herd into the Barmah.
Barmah State Park was established in 1987 but became the Barmah National Park in 2010, and it was this name change that spelled trouble on the horses. Suddenly, brumbies found themselves bearing the brunt of the blame for the destruction of the forest’s Moira grasses which predominate in the wetland.
The Moira Grasses
Moira grass conservation is the reason Parks Victoria want the brumbies eradicated. This native species is listed as a ‘critical wetland type’ of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, which aims to halt the worldwide loss of wetlands and to conserve, “through wise use and management”, those that remain.
The grasses have suffered a 90 percent decline in extent since 1930 and provide a hunting and nesting ground for birds including several species protected by bilateral agreements between Australia, Japan and China.
Principal factors like artificially controlled flooding regimes, invasive weeds and the ever-choking saplings that are encroaching the Moira Grass plains en-masse are now considered the biggest threat to Moira grass conservation (Bren 1992, CSIRO Publishing -Ecosystem Sciences), yet the brumbies continue to be blamed for most of the degradation. Keep in mind that, prior to the regulation of watering conditions, in the 1930s, Moira grass extent was estimated at 4,000 hectares and this was a time when 4,000 head of cattle and brumbies roamed the forest.
“Since river regulation, reductions in the frequency, depth and length of inundation mean that Moira Grass does not have the same opportunities as it once did to complete its lifecycle. These changed conditions have allowed river red gum and giant rush to encroach on the Moira Grass plain” said Mr Childs from the Victorian Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment.
Despite all this, and the presence of some 150 to 200 free-roaming horses, the seasons of 2018 and 2019 recorded exceptional growth and flowering of Moira grass. It was observed to grow in parts of its former range where it has not been recorded for many years as described by the Victorian Environmental Water Holder.
A war of numbers
There is controversy surrounding the number of brumbies in the Barmah National Park. To base their estimates, conservation agencies have used the FLIR imaging system, whereby areas that are frequented by the horses are surveyed. The results of these surveys conducted in June 2018 and 2019 suggested 540 horses, but choosing sites of highest brumby density could provide artificially high readings. Other surveys conducted during October and September 2019 record numbers nearer 280.
While Parks Victoria state that that the 280 count ‘under-represents’ the numbers, but will not acknowledge the possibility that 540 ‘over-represents’. As well as false readings due to the location bias, the Barmah Brumby Hay Angels (BBHA) have questioned whether deer could be mixed up in the counts.
The BBHA was formed during the drought of 2017/2018 when the Murray Darling Basement Authority released great amounts of water into the river to increase flows for growers in South Australia. The extreme flooding starved the parks animals (not just brumbies), as they were either cut off due to flood waters or their grazing areas were destroyed.
Kaye and Gerry Moor drew attention to the fate of the animals. A third generation resident of the Barmah, Gerry has an intimate understanding of the life of the Barmah brumby.
The Moor’s started the BBHA to provide fodder to the horses as well as many of the native species, which include kangaroos and wallabies. I became involved at this time, when we were granted access to private properties that bordered the park from where we maintained feeding stations to see the animals through the tough times.
Through generous donations, BBHA was able to purchase hay and feed around 120 brumbies and countless other native animals. Other private individual groups and locals joined the cause.
From drought to eradication
Under the Strategic Action Plan Protection of Floodplain Marshes Barmah National Park and Barmah RAMSAR site, 2020 – 2023, Parks Victoria plan to remove 100 brumbies each year over a period of four years.
The BBHA are opposing the plan because, based on their estimated numbers, which are almost half of those published by Parks Victoria, the brumbies would be eradicated from the area in less than two years.
Horse trapping practices, however they are done, have their share of welfare impacts that deserve to be considered. In Australia, horses may be trapped into pens by chasing or luring with salt licks. Mares and foals can easily become separated and family bands broken up. Stallions lose their mares, whilst feeding mixed bands in confined areas leads to fights and injuries.
Parks Victoria have listened to community pleas for the welfare of the horses and, for the first time, they have established a re-homing program. While on paper this is a much better alternative to culling, under the current terms and timeline set, it is not feasible. The department first called for expressions of interest on Feb 24th, and closing date for applicants is March 30th.
In practice, this short time frame means that prospective re-homers are given one, maybe two weeks notice once Brumbies are trapped, making it difficult to find suitable homes for many horses, and those that remain unclaimed are then shot or sent to slaughter, placing their welfare at even further risk.
A hung jury
The Consultation Summary of the Strategic Plan notes that 67% of respondents said they rarely or never visit Barmah, and of those, 50% don’t support the shooting Brumbies. The heritage and cultural value of the brumbies was listed as the principal response when questioned whether the horses should be allowed to remain.
The local Bangerang Aboriginal Corporation stated that evidence-based decisions on the health of the forest should be made in consultation with their community. Whilst they acknowledge there are differing opinions in relation to the Barmah brumbies, they mention that the horses are now part of the history of the forest.
Is balance possible?
Is it so wrong to consider that, after two hundred years living in this environment the brumbies might be allowed to stay? As a main tourist attraction, keeping brumbies in the National Park provide a great benefit local rural towns who are already struggling through ongoing droughts and fires.
Australian Brumbies are included in the World Wild Horse database undertaken by the university of Texas’ team led by Dr Gus Cothran. To date, DNA sampling has established a genetic line that is individual to the Barmah Horses and Barmah National Park.
An approach that BBHA argue is not being explored deeply enough by Parks Victoria is whether a balance could be struck by allowing a sustainable number of brumbies could remain in the forest and still allow Moira grass regeneration.
Perhaps a controlled number of horses could be contained within certain parts of the forest, setting aside some form of sanctuary.
After all, many other countries maintain free-roaming horses and have been reporting benefits from re-wilding herds of horses and cattle as a means to maintaining and regenerating natural ecosystems.
More research could be undertaken to provide an evidence-based assessment of the welfare of the current population.
In the United States, Mustangs are used in inmate rehabilitation programs and other equine therapy interventions.
At the very least, Parks Victoria should consider much longer time frames for the removal of horses, such as implementing more sustainable and feasible rehoming programs and conducting immunocontraception trials to reduce numbers more gradually. These are more humane and sensible options than eradication through trapping and culling.
The world is watching Australia’s handling of its brumby population. Many influential photographers and artists are shining a spotlight on their iconic status and remarkable resilience. A photo by Lyn Collins is being turned into an artwork by South Australian Yvette Frahn, Spirit of Equine, and will be the showcase piece of an upcoming exhibition.
With almost a quarter of a century of forest living, the brumbies’ strong form of mutualism should be given immense consideration before eradication. Too rapid and great a shift in the balance could see the Park’s ecology going into shock. As coexistence becomes possible, any introduced species must eventually become ‘native’ as it should in the case of the Barmah brumbies.