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The feral horse population in Australia’s alpine national parks has more than doubled in the past five years, with conservationists blaming what they have called a disgraceful lack of management by the New South Wales government.

The updated population figures come from an aerial survey of the alpine national parks and surrounding state forests in NSW and Victoria conducted in April and May of this year. It mimicked a survey of the same area in 2014.

The survey data, released on Monday, showed the feral horse population had grown an estimated 23% a year over the past five years, from 9,187 in 2014 to 25,318 in 2019.

The population growth was strongest in the northern section of Kosciuszko national park, which showed a five-fold increase.

Andrew Cox, chief executive of the Invasive Species Council, said that if feral horse numbers continued to increase at the current rate, horses would become the most-sighted animal in the park.

“It is a disgrace to see how much the population has grown out of control,” Cox said.

Cox said the exponential growth meant that authorities would have to remove thousands of horses a year just to keep the population stable.

He said all humane and effective forms of population control — including aerial culling, which has been explicitly ruled out by the NSW government — should be back on the table.

“If we don’t do it, horses will be the main animal you see there,” he said. “Australia’s most iconic park is being lost to horses.”

NSW last year introduced laws to protect the Snowy Mountains brumbies for their “heritage value”, scrapping a recommendation from the state’s environment department that feral horse numbers in the alps be reduced by 90%. Victoria, meanwhile, has committed to removing 1,200 horses from its side of the border.

The driving force behind the change in the NSW policy was deputy premier John Barilaro, whose electorate of Monaro includes the Snowy Mountains.

Barilaro said he remained opposed to aerial culling.

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“I have never ruled out culling if the numbers show we need to,” he said in a statement. “But what I have ruled out is aerial culling of wild brumbies because, I stress, I won’t let this be a repeat of the Guy Fawkes massacre.”

The culling of more than 600 horses at the Guy Fawkes national park in north-western NSW in 2000, where at least one horse was found alive with a bullet wound, is frequently cited as an argument against aerial culling. But aerial culling is commonly used against feral horses in remote parts of the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

Cox said the Guy Fawkes incident had been mythologised and exaggerated. He said the damage to native flora and fauna, including the critically endangered northern and southern corroboree frog, would be severe if horse numbers were not curbed.

Attempts to trap and retrain brumbies have resulted in a relatively small number being rehomed. About 800 have been trapped in recent years.

“You can’t just take a few hundred horses out, there needs to be a serious control program put in place,” Cox said.

Failure to do so will have negative animal welfare impacts on the brumbies themselves, Cox said. They are already being hit by cars.

“The horses will overflow the park and spill into surrounding private lands if we don’t do something to control their numbers,” he said. “They have no natural predators, they have no diseases. They will starve themselves out.”

Barilaro said brumbies had been part of the Australian alps for almost 200 years, since they were released by or escaped from European settlers.

“I have always maintained that it is important we find a balance between the cultural significance of the brumbies and managing the environmental impact on the Kosciuszko national park,” he said.

A community advisory panel has been formed to help draft the wild horse management plan.

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