There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around. That the colt from old Regret had got away. And had joined the wild bush horses – he was worth a thousand pound.
Once upon a time Australians romanticised our horses. We relied on them and they even helped define our nation as evidenced by Banjo Paterson’s The Man from Snowy River which remains marked on Australian minds through our $10 note.
But what was once a positive relationship has turned sour and many experts say it’s time to rein in Australia’s brumby population. Recent research has shown feral horses cause ‘widespread environmental degradation, destroy ecosystems, eliminate populations of native species and spread weeds’.
It’s estimated there are about 400,000 wild brumbies in Australia and their numbers are growing. In an ABC article Professor Chris Pollitt, dubbed the David Attenborough of brumbies, described our modern relationship with horses: ‘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 we love to see that.
‘But we know this is Australia and it’s not their natural environment, so we have to make some compromises.’
Without any compromises it seems certain that the brumby population will continue growing and destroy more and more native flora and fauna.
So far, the most effective way to reduce brumby impact has been through aerial culling. Other methods like fertility control have not proved effective because of the very thing that enchanted them to Australia in the first place ‑ the inaccessible alpine areas these animals call home.
Aerial culling and ground shooting are humane methods supported by the RSPCA. However, there is only so much that can be done given the difficulties associated with the terrain.
Controlling invasive species
An independent report found that of 606 horses despatched via the air, only one of the horses suffered a prolonged death. From a humane standpoint this is a fantastic outcome and is the standard for shooting.
However, there was still a public outcry after scenes from the aerial cull were made public. It’s important to understand that Mother Nature can be just as cruel as humans though. It’s just we don’t always see images of her work.
Which is worse? Dead brumbies from aerial culling or dead brumbies from starvation and dehydration which occur during periods of flood and drought? Not to mention the devastation to alpine regions which is caused by just the existence of the brumbies which can be a forgotten part of the compromise.
Can we make peace with brumbies?
While aerial culling reigns supreme, there are other methods to controlling the brumby population that aren’t as effective, but also don’t necessarily need to be scrapped. For example, ‘trapping and rehomed’ or ‘trapping and neutering’ is not considered to be effectual, but maybe it is something to consider even if it only helps a little bit.
In the middle of the Outback a program called Brumby Week is giving everyday people a glimpse into the rarely seen lives of wild horses. This form of trapping is great for public education and eco-tourism. The week-long retreat covers life in the outback and what goes into breaking-in wild brumbies. But while Brumby Week is good for educating the public it does little to address the destructive side of the increasing brumby population.
Despite our efforts so far, the situation for brumbies and our environment remains dire. For now, it seems certain that aerial culling should and will continue as the main solution to brumby over-expansion because they have simply become too large and destructive.
Who knows though? Programs like Brumby Week along with new technologies and new population controls may be developed in the future creating a win-win for the environment and the strangely placed brumbies of Australia. It’s faint light, but it’s the only way out and back to a relationship like that in The Man from Snowy River.