Over the past couple of months a controversy has erupted over the New South Wales Government’s proposal to cull the brumbies in the Kosciuszko National Park. The proposal, if implemented, would see 50% of the approximately 6000 wild horses in the Snowy Mountains killed over a period of two years.
Setting aside the issue of “culling” as being a politically and socially sanitised word for wholesale slaughter, and the unethical practice of applying such methods to certain target species (why not cull humans, for example, which are in plague proportion?), my interest here is on the counter-campaign: the grassroots movement to save the brumbies. I have been following the discussion of the pro-brumby campaigners via social media over the past few weeks. The current direction of the campaign is a call to have the Snowy Mountains brumbies listed as “heritage”.
Some backstory here. Horses are not native to Australia. There is no record as to when horses were first introduced, but it’s a safe assumption that it was with the First Fleet in 1788. The First Fleet also brought the first rabbits, dogs, cats, rats and various other species of non-native animals, including a human cargo from which many Australians are directly descended. All of these species, as well as later imports such as foxes, deer and camels, have become feral animals. Humans included, it could be said. The first record of wild horses being declared a pest species occurs in around 1860.
Then in 1890, the following words were published in the current affairs magazine, The Bulletin:
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,/ So all the cracks had gathered to the fray…
A.B. “Banjo” Paterson’s classic poem told the story of an expensive thoroughbred horse that had joined a mob of brumbies and, evading the efforts of experienced horsemen to round it up, it took a young Snowy Mountains man, the eponymous Man from Snowy River – a stripling on a small and weedy beast– to retrieve the escaped colt in an epic ride that forms the backbone of the poem.
Almost a century later, filmmaker and director, George Miller, made a movie of the same name, injecting a romantic slant into the story but sticking, more or less, to the epic ride.
I served a term on the Snowy River Shire Council back at the turn of this century, and in that role I saw first-hand the damage that wild horses can do to the fragile alpine environment.
I am, as anyone who has given this blog more than a cursory glance will know, an animal rights advocate. I oppose the killing of animals under any guise, particularly the political convenience of “culling”. I believe there are better, more effective and certainly more humane ways of protecting both animals and environment. I do, however, take issue with the Save the Brumbies campaign on a number of levels.
There is a high degree of misinformation and misinterpretation of the history of feral species in this country generally and horses in particular. An exchange on FaceBook the other day went something like this:
Person A: [Brumbies] are indigenous to Oz.
Me: No, they’re an introduced and feral species.
Person A: They’re as indigenous as white man, and anyway, they’re not feral. Feral means they can’t be domesticated – like hyenas or crocodiles.
Me: Yes they are as indigenous as white people. Which is to say they’re not indigenous. And feral means wild animals, usually descended from domesticated ones.
Person B: It doesn’t matter whether they’re feral or not. We need to have them declared as Heritage.
And so on …
My question here is, if we declare one species of feral animal as “Heritage”, why not all? Why not heritage-listed feral cats? Goats? Dogs? Rabbits? They all damage the environment in different ways where they occur in sufficient number and after all, they’ve all been here for the same amount of time, and the same amount of time as non-Indigenous humans.
Is being enshrined in folklore via a poem sufficient basis for heritage-listing a species that has the capacity to destroy the habitat of native animals whose lineage in this country goes back many thousands of years? Banjo Paterson also wrote a poem about the usefulness of Muscovy ducks during grasshopper plagues. Why is heritage-listing of Muscovy ducks on the basis of folkloric immortality sillier than that of wild horses?
I’ve been called a bleeding heart animal liberationist for my opposition to the ACT Government’s wholesale slaughter of kangaroos, a native animal whose habitat is being systematically covered by Canberra’s urban sprawl. Yet many of those same people opposing the brumby cull also support kangaroo culling and indeed, actively participate in it.
Can we have some consistency here? Brumbies and kangaroos both have their place. It is ludicrous to mount a campaign to save an introduced species while at the same time support killing a native species.
The case for heritage-listing brumbies is philosophically inconsistent. Why place governmental protection over a feral horses? Because they're horses? What's so special about wild horses that they need protection? Because they're horses. The question just keeps repeating itself. The real reasoning is emotive and not logical. This is not to say that logic can't be extrapolated, but in so doing, we have to address the wider issues of what makes an animal worthy of conservation and the flip side of that: what deems an animal to be a pest. None of that discussion is happening around the brumbies issue.
The Snowy Mountains Brumby Rescue Group has taken on the laudable – if somewhat daunting – task of rescuing brumbies for rehoming. This is one very effective and grassroots way of controlling the numbers in the wild. A bit like any domestic animal rescue and rehome operation, it takes time and commitment, but it seems there are many people out there willing to adopt these beautiful creatures. Roping and trapping is a means of ensuring that the horses are able to be caught and controlled non-lethally. Fertility control is another long-term method of feral animal control that could be applied with the sufficient will of the authorities.
Meanwhile, the campaign for the heritage-listing of brumbies is unlikely to succeed until and unless the proponents accept that they are championing a feral species and are able to articulate why that species is more worthy of protection than any other species that has been introduced post-1788. Including Muscovy ducks.