Feral horses in Australia are known as brumbies. Descendants of long-ago escaped or lost horses, these rugged ponies now live in many places across the country, but the most well-known horses are found in the Australian Alps region. Many are found in Kosciuszko National Park in New South Wales where they are grazing on land trying to recover from recent wildfires.
While the brumbies are beloved by many, they are also reviled for the damage they do to the land. In hopes of protecting the ecosystem, about 4,000 of the feral horses will be rounded up and removed from Kosciuszko, reports The Guardian. The priority will be to catch and rehome animals, but some will likely be killed.
"As many horses as possible will be rehomed. Some horses will go to the knackery," a spokesperson for the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service told The Guardian. A knackery is a slaughterhouse.
The number of horses in the park has been growing rapidly. Recent studies show that the equine population in alpine areas has more than doubled in the past five years to more than 25,000.
Three areas in the park covering about 140,000 acres (57,000 hectacres) would be targeted — Nungar plain, Cooleman plain and parts of Boggy and Kiandra plains. About 4,000 horses are estimated to live in those areas. Those parts of the park contain threatened species and sensitive ecological areas, the spokesperson said.
Wildlife leaders hope that removing the horses should help protect the habitats of the broad-toothed rat, which is vulnerable, and corroboree frogs, which are listed as critically endangered.
The horse conundrum
Chris Pollitt, a professor of equine medicine at the University of Queensland, has been studying brumbies for more than a decade.
"The conundrum is we love the horse. We love to see it in its wild state, its fully evolved state, thriving in its natural environment," Pollitt told Australia's ABC News, in the video above. "We love to see that but we know this is Australia and it's not its natural environment so we have to make some compromises."
In addition to damaging the environment, the horses themselves often have a difficult time surviving. Food and water is limited and it's not unusual for many horse carcasses to be found around a dried-up water hole. For all those reasons, experts agree the horse population needs to be managed. But not everyone agrees how to do it.
Sterilization has been deemed impractical because the area where the horses roam is so large. Culling is the option that most often arises, although it's extremely controversial. In the past, brumbies have been either shot from above or sometimes rounded up and either sent to slaughterhouses or rehomed.
When culling has been done before, according to Australian Geographic, about one-third of the trapped horses were taken in by nonprofit groups that prepared them for adoption. From 2009 to about 2015, member groups of the Australian Brumby Alliance found homes for about 960 horses; thousands more went to slaughterhouses.
Looking at both sides of the issue
In 2018, the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Act was passed to recognize and protect feral horses on those lands.
Jamie Pittock argues that the act needs to be repealed. A professor in the Fenner School of Environment & Society at Australian National University, Pittock consults with scientific groups, including the Invasive Species Council, and recently took a helicopter tour above the park.
"If we don't immediately reduce feral horse numbers, the consequences for Kosciuszko National Park and its unique Australian flora and fauna will be horrendous," he wrote in The Conversation. "Without an emergency cull of feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park, burnt vegetation may not fully recover and threatened species will march further towards extinction."
The chief executive of the Invasive Species Council, Andrew Cox, told the Guardian Australia the new plan would save the park's conservation after the devastating wildfires.
"There are thousands and thousands of horses — some were burned — and they are just making a mess of the park," he said. "It's necessary that large numbers are removed because virtually nothing has been done for three years."
But the key, say the horse-lovers, is to not lose sight of the brumbies.
Pollitt insists, "Whatever we do, we've got to put the welfare of the horse in the No. 1 prime position."