Climate change retreat of snow will dwarf impact of introduced animals
By Frankie Seymour — AJP candidate Monaro, (environmental scientist)
UNTIL I SAW it two week ago, I was fairly agnostic about whether the damage attributed to the Brumbies in Kosciuszko National Park was real or just yet another ‘feral’-bashing beat-up.
Then we visited places where the damage is real, most significantly the headwaters of the Murrumbidgee River. We were also shown other undamaged streams and bogs where horses are nearby but are excluded because of a particular types of native vegetation called Candle Heath that horses don’t like.
Although we did not see many horses on our visit, we had no reason to doubt our guides’ assertions that many more can sometimes be seen; that their numbers rose during a few good seasons; and that the current drought has not yet reduced the population significantly.
I would suggest that another reason why their numbers have climbed in recent years might be that the retreat of the snow has opened up new ranges for them that were not previously accessible to horses.
Confirmation of environmental damage in at least one vulnerable area of the Park in no way alters the Animal Justice Party’s (AJP) ethically and environmentally motivated rejection of calls to kill thousands of them.
Ethically, we could no more condone murdering horses for being where humans abandoned them than we would condone murdering humans in the same circumstances.
We have no issue with humanely killing individuals (human or animal) who are terminally ill and suffering unbearably, but no wild animal cull in Australian history, as far as I know, has ever been carried out for this reason.
The numbers don’t add up: require killing whole populations over 20 years
End up with pretty much the same size
population as before the killing started,
or favour younger, more fertile horses
Killing fast-breeding animals (eg pigs, cats and foxes) or animals without predators (eg horses) is environmentally idiotic because you can never kill all of them. Killing just leaves more room, more food, more water, more everything to sustain the next generation born to the survivors, normally resulting in more animals.
This is especially the case with species like horses which use social patterns of territoriality and dominance to suppress excess breeding. Killing large numbers of them cannot do other than create a younger, more fertile and, in a few years, a larger population than was present before culling began.
Indeed, the Reclaim Kosciuszko’s own literature confirms that when horses were removed by translocation, the remaining population increased.
If the cull were a one-off, this new population would gradually age and we would end up with pretty much the same size population we had before the killing started.
If the culling is sustained over 20 years as proposed by the NSW government’s 2016 plan, it will continuously make room for younger, smaller and more fertile horses who would otherwise never have been born or died in infancy.
To succeed in reducing the population as proposed by the plan, 90% of horses born every single year of those 20 years would have to be killed, in addition to 5,400 of the current herd (or somewhat fewer, given that up to half the current population could be expected to die of natural causes over 20 years).
Goal of 600 horses unlikely; challenges to fertility control
Aside from the horrific scale of such an ongoing massacre, an outcome of even removing 600 horses appears to be unachievable, given the inaccessibility of much of the terrain.
Even if the killing was intense and continuous enough to reduce the population to 600, those 600 remaining would simply breed back up to 6,000-plus a few years later.
Our guides suggested the remnant could be managed by fertility control, but the remnant 600 are likely to be the remnant precisely because they are the ones living in the least accessible places. If they cannot be accessed to be killed, they are cannot be accessed to be rendered infertile.
Cost to the Park and visitors
About fertility control program
across the current and future herd
Aside from its ultimate futility, and the ethical and emotional horror of such intensive and continuous slaughter, achieving its objective would probably mean the Park would have to be permanently closed for shooting.
The killing program would likely cost more than the combined cost of putting horse-proof fencing along many kilometres of river bank and reducing the herd to a desired number using fertility control. And the mind boggles at considering the impacts on the native inhabitants of the Park of unremitting noise, lead, corpses and terror.
If introduced animals really are doing more harm than good, AJP supports rational, humane and effective solutions (eg fertility control and fencing), not counter-productive knee-jerk massacres.
A major fertility-control program across the current and future herd, using food and water to entice horses from the less accessible places to the more accessible places, would ultimately reach the entire population.
We may be looking at 80 years until the natural death of the youngest offspring of the last fertile mare to breed, before we see the end of the Brumby population (or its reduction to a heritage herd of 600 to be managed by fertility control in one of the less vulnerable areas of the Park). But at least both those objectives would be achievable. With killing, neither objective will ever be achieved.
Some sort of permanent immunocontraceptive fertility control would obviously be ideal but, absent of such a drug for immediate use, simply vasectomising dominant stallions would make a highly effective start. The stallions would remain dominant and would guard the mares in their harem from other males, so those mares would have no offspring.
Agree protecting the river headwaters vital: here’s a plan
Protecting the headwaters of the Murray and the Murrumbidgee is critical to the water supply of the entire south eastern quadrant of Australia, and to the survival of a number of remnant populations of frogs, fish and crustacean.
In the short term, AJP would support adaptive management in the form of plants (like the Candle Heath), fencing, and sonic, visual and olfactory repellents to keep the horses from trampling the Sphagnum Moss and the river banks.
For animal welfare reasons, this would also mean ensuring that streams that are less vulnerable or already irreparably damaged remain accessible to the horses until the population is gone (or reduced to the desired population).
Elephant in the Brumby room
However, in all this discussion of horses, there is an elephant in the room. The entire brumby issue is likely to be moot in a few years when no snow falls in the Snowy (or, in the way of a destabilised climate, the snow arrives only in huge destructive dumps every few years or decades, and sometimes at altogether the wrong time of year).
Then there will be no hope for the remnant animal populations that depend on the snow layer or the snow-dependent vegetation. Rain will still fall on the mountains (at least we hope so), so maybe the Sphagnum Moss will survive and continue to be the sponge that waters so much of the nation, but the dynamics of the entire system will change; indeed they are already changing.
The consequences of the absence of snow totally dwarf the consequences of the presence of the Brumbies.
I would suggest that the moment everyone realises that the knee-jerk “Let’s kill things!” reaction never works and is unconscionable in a civilised society anyway, other more effective measures will quickly begin to emerge.
MAIN IMAGE: Wild colts (Brumbies) frolicking. Carol Hancock, Dreamstime.