NSW Government supports more culls after survey finds 14,000 wild horses in Kosciuszko National Park


The first aerial survey since the catastrophic 2019 bushfires has found that the number of wild horses in the Kosciuszko National Park has fallen by more than a quarter. 

The survey found there are now an estimated 14,000 horses — 5,000 fewer than the previous year.

The NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean said while there had been some reduction in numbers, the population remained too large to be environmentally sustainable.

“We will always have wild horses in Kosciuszko but 14,000 is still too many,” he said.

“If we want to preserve this precious place and the plants and animals that call it home, we need to manage horse numbers responsibly.”

Surveys conducted between 2014 and 2019 showed that the horse population was increasing by more than 20 per cent each year.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service has long voiced concerned that the damage caused by the horses’ hooves threatens sensitive alpine ecosystems and destroys key habitat for several threatened native species.

The latest survey was commissioned by the NSW Government and carried out by helicopter surveillance over four days in October and November 2020.

Mr Kean welcomed the new data, which he said reinforced the need to manage the wild horse population.

“We can now be confident that we have the most up-to-date data as we get the balance right, protecting the Snowies and retaining the heritage value of these wild horses.”

He said several factors had contributed to the fall in numbers, including the drought, the bushfires and the fact that the 2019 survey covered the entire NSW and Victorian Alps region while this survey only looked at wild horses within Kosciuszko National Park.

Mr Kean said that more than 340 horses were removed from the park in 2020 by passive trapping and re-homing.

He said this interim program would continue, pending the finalisation of a new management plan.

The wild horses have been competing with the native wildlife for food after the fires.(ABC News: Matt Roberts)

Deputy Premier John Barilaro, whose Monaro electorate covers part of the Kosciuszko National Park, had campaigned for a new survey, saying he believed the summer bushfires had significantly reduced the brumby population.

“The results of this survey show we were justified in our push for an urgent recount of the wild horses in the park,” Mr Barilaro said.

While he has previously opposed a cull of wild horses, he said he was now ready to support a plan to reduce numbers.

“I accept that the figure of just over 14,000 wild horses in the park is still too high and that active management of their impact on the park’s alpine environment must continue,” he said.

Jamie Pittock from the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University said the survey demonstrated that there has been no real change in the number of wild horses.

“The numbers in the 2020 survey, scientifically they are not statistically significantly different from the 2019 pre-fire survey,” he said.

“It’s really hard to count any large animals in a large area of bushland so statistically the numbers fall within the error range of the surveys of 2019 and 2020.”

He said the only significant change was that no horse population was found around Cabramurra, which was severely burnt in the bushfires.

Whereas, there was no reduction in numbers in the northern part of the National Park.

“In that area, the density of horses has not changed and that’s really significant because of the key habitat for threatened animals impacted by horses is in that area,” Dr Pittock said.

Calls for more aerial culling

The National Parks Association said horse numbers must be urgently controlled as alpine habitats are incredibly rare in Australia.

“All of the science says the number of horses that should be in the park is a number in the hundreds not a number in the thousands,” executive officer Gary Dunnett said.

There is a whole range of plants and animal species that cannot survive anywhere else than in those Alpine habitats, such as the stocky Galaxias, the Corrobboree Frog and the Mountain Pygmy Possum.

A creek with erosion on either side
Horse-induced erosion on Little Peppercorn Creek in Kosciuszko national park.(Supplied: NSW Government)

Mr Dunnett also does not think that rehoming the horses is the answer.

“It is really stretching credibility to think that there are enough people out there to take these animals and to make a real difference to the high level of horse numbers we have at the moment.

“There are a whole range of techniques that could reduce numbers, aerially culling is a well established technique for controlling animal numbers from an animal welfare and human safety aspect, corralling horses is also effective and so is ground shooting.”

He said when horse counting began in the early 2000s there was estimated to be about 2,000 brumbies in the national park.

The Government said the results of the survey would be used to draw up a new draft wild horse management plan, setting out how it intended to reduce the horse population to a sustainable level.

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Al Mah Haha hoping to secure spot in the Kosciuszko


It was thought for a moment last week that Al Mah Haha was picked by one of the last two remaining slot holders for the Kosciuszko before Racing NSW dismissed the rumour.

Goulburn trainer Tash Burleigh updated the situation ahead of his first-up run at Warwick Farm on Wednesday.

“He’s not confirmed, but he’s in the mix,” she said.

“There’s been a chat between one of the slot holders and myself but it’s just a bit of a waiting game at the moment because they’ve obviously got a few other options.

“We’re business as usual and we’ll stick to the plan. I just wanted to give him a first-up run then have a few weeks between now and possibly the Kosciuszko.”

Burleigh knows her phone might be ringing hot if Al Mah Haha can win Wednesday’s Benchmark 72 Handicap (1100m) in western Sydney.

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And that’s why she’ll be feeling a little pressure on her way up to Warwick Farm.

“There’s a lot on the line. I’ll go there with butterflies and I don’t usually go to the race nervous but there’s a big race we’re trying to get into,” she said.

“He’s spelled really well and has come back and hasn’t put a foot wrong this preparation.”

He looked quite good when running fifth in a hot trial last month over 800m and took plenty out of it.

“He’s right where we want him and he had that nice trial behind a few good horses like Gytrash and Fasika and he wasn’t anywhere near fit so I was pretty happy,” Burleigh said.

“He’s come along in leaps and bounds since that trial and I hope to see a bold run first-up.”

Al Mah Haha has been one of the more unlucky horses in NSW country racing.

He was scratched at the barriers moments before the 2019 Country Championships Final at Randwick and this year he ran a close second behind Gracie Belle in the big race.

It was one of four-straight second placings last preparation.

“It was surreal because there was no crowd there. It was dead silence and really weird,” Burleigh said.

“He ran so well every start last preparation. He’s been unlucky and hopefully this is his preparation.”

One of Al Mah Haha’s main rivals, The Bopper, was scratched from today’s race yesterday afternoon when drawing barrier 12 for Kris Lees.

Miss Fox is the other boom horse that Burleigh’s six-year-old will have to beat and Koby Jennings is back on after riding him in the Moruya heat of the Country Championships earlier this year.

“I’m happy with barrier one. We’ll let a few horses go by him and sit three back,” Burleigh said.

“It’s a nice race for Al. There’s a few up-and-coming horses who have run in nice Highways and done their tricks in the country.”

Last start winner Plaquette and Hulk are other in the race with claims

If Al Mah Haha can win he’ll just about secure his spot in the $1.3 million Kosciuszko, to be run at Randwick next month.

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PEPPER’S STAYER LOOKS GOOD AT ODDS

When markets opened for Wednesday’s Warwick Farm meeting and Fox Beat was rated a $23 chance for the fourth race, his trainer knew he was sneaking under the radar.

Canberra trainer Luke Pepper only has a horse with country form but also knows that if you’re going to bring a horse to town with lesser form, then a staying race is the type to target.

“I thought he’d be about $15 so he’s a good each-way bet at that price,” Pepper said.

Fox Beat runs in a Benchmark 72 Handicap (2200m) after running two lengths off the winner when fifth last start at Moruya.

He’s only had one go at Wednesday’s trip for a win and there’s no standout going around in the staying race.

He’ll also drop from 60kg to 54kg which comes into play over the trip.

“He’s been looking to get out to the 2200m and has been carrying big weights and running really well,” Pepper said.

“He drops back down to the minimum now and has run really well in a 2400m race at Randwick and I think he’s a more mature horse this time, so I’m looking forward to it.

“The weight drop is the biggest key. He’s not a really big horse and when he’s carried 60kg in the bush he hasn’t had the turn of foot.

“He should have finished a lot closer at Moruya after getting poleaxed, so I think he can run really well now.”

Jean Van Overmeire will ride the Foxwedge six-year-old out of barrier three and he should get the run of the race just in behind the speed set by Frenzied.

“He’s a genuine stayer and Jean has had a couple of rides on him, which is a positive too, and I can’t fault the horse,” Pepper said.

“He has also been good over the trip before, which is a box ticked.”



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Trapping and rehoming of brumbies begins in Kosciuszko National Park after court challenge denied


The trapping and rehoming of feral horses in the Kosciuszko National Park has resumed after the Land and Environment Court dismissed a bid to stop the practice.

The Snowy Mountains Brumby Sustainability and Management Group (SMBSMG) tried to stop brumbies from being trapped and removed from three sensitive areas of the park, but the court upheld a 2008 horse management plan.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) Southern Ranges director, Mick Pettitt, said the service was luring brumbies to yards with salt and molasses since May and the first horses were removed this week.

“We have got, at this stage, room for 155 horses for rehomers who have put their hand up to take that number of horses.

“One of the things that came out of the court case is more interest for rehoming of horses, so we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to increase that number from 155 upwards.”

NPWS said it did not have a target for the number of horses it planned to remove from the park.

“One of those areas, which is the Nungar Plains, there weren’t horses before — they’ve moved in since 2008.

“So we’ll remove horses from the Nungar Plains and we’ll reduce the horse numbers in Kiandra and Cooleman Plains.”

Pro-brumby group will lobby for changes

President of SMBSMG Alan Lanyon said, with no avenues to appeal last week’s court decision, he would instead lobby the State Government for a new Horse Management Plan or for changes to the existing one.

The Deputy Premier John Barilaro has backed those calls and said he has again written to the Environment Minister Matt Kean urging him to authorise a recount of feral horses in the national park.

A man with black hair
Deputy Premier John Barilaro is calling for a review of the Horse Management Plan.(AAP: Dean Lewins)

“We went through the worst fires last summer and lost a lot of wildlife and somehow the anti-brumby groups believe the brumbies survived it,” Mr Barilaro said.

Survey data collected in 2019 found the brumby population was up from about 5,000 in 2014 to 20,000.

“The survey is one of the most robust, scientifically and statistically sound approaches to counting population estimates within the park and those figures have been peer reviewed and stand as a good estimate of the population,” Mr Pettitt said.

“We’ve had staff out prior, during and post fires and from various means of observation, by ground or by air, we recognise there are still a lot of horses in the area.”



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Kosciuszko National Park brumbies causing ‘abhorrent’ damage, says Indigenous river guide


When Richard Swain describes the condition of Kosciuszko National Park, he uses words like “disgusting”, “disrespectful” and “a mess”.

The pain he feels as he explains the damage he sees in the Snowy Mountains high country every day is clear across his face.

Mr Swain, a Wiradjuri man and alpine river guide, is not talking about the impact of the summer bushfires.

The problem, according to him, is the thousands of feral horses roaming through the iconic alpine landscape, trampling sensitive ecosystems and pushing already threatened native species further towards extinction.

“It’s a desecration of country and the country is crying out for help — the damage is abhorrent,” Mr Swain, a campaigner for the Invasive Species Council, said.

A man with brown hair and stubble wearing a flannelette shirt and standing in a burnt out part of Kosciuszko National Park.
Richard Swain has been fighting to have brumby numbers in Kosciuszko National Park drastically reduced for years.(ABC Riverina: Rosie King)

Plan is to trap and rehome

That decision was the passing by the New South Wales Government of the so-called ‘Brumby Bill’ in 2018 — legislation championed by Deputy Premier and Member for Monaro John Barilaro.

It recognised the cultural heritage of wild horses to Kosciuszko National Park and prohibited their culling.

Instead, brumbies in sensitive parts of the park are to be trapped and then rehomed.

Three brown brumbies with a small, brown foal stand in an open plain in Kosciuszko National Park.
Packs of brumbies can easily be spotted roaming through Kosciuszko National Park.(ABC News: Greg Nelson)

“What we’ve achieved in New South Wales is a balanced approach to reducing numbers in the most sensitive areas of Kosciuszko National Park in a humane way that has brought both sides of the debate together,” Mr Barilaro said.

“We’re not shooting them from helicopters like in Victoria.

“We’ve ruled out aerial culling. We’ve ruled out shooting horses and letting their carcasses rot on the forest floor.

A bitter war

Two clear horse hoof prints on a dirt track.
Evidence of horse hooves can be seen all over the national park.(ABC News: Greg Nelson)

But brumby numbers have not declined in Kosciuszko National Park.

Survey data collected by the Australian Alps Liaison Committee last year found the population was booming; up from around 5,000 in 2014 to 20,000.

“The problem has just gotten bigger,” Mr Swain said.

And the two sides of the debate are still very much at odds, with Mr Swain and his family’s property often being the target of vandals.

“The behaviour of the pro-feral crowd is disgusting, and Barilaro’s created this,” he added.

Alan Lanyon, the president of the Snowy Mountains Brumby Sustainability and Management Group, has been defending the plight of the brumbies for decades.

“The Snowy brumbies are part of our cultural heritage and the history of the mountains,” Mr Lanyon said.

An older man wearing a red cap stands at a farm gate with a brown horse.
Alan Lanyon believes the brumbies are an important part of Australia’s history and need to be protected — not culled.(ABC Riverina: Rosie King)

It’s not often Mr Lanyon and Mr Swain see eye to eye, but he agreed there was little harmony or agreement between those on opposing sides of the brumby debate.

“It is a war,” Mr Lanyon said.

“We’ve challenged a lot of the scientific facts they put out there and proved them to be wrong.

“Sadly, at the end of the day, Kosciuszko National Park suffers because we can’t get a broad consensus on any particular issue.”

A pack of six brumbies standing in an open plan within Kosciuszko National Park.
Some people argue the hard-hooved animals are destroying the unique alpine ecosystem.(ABC Riverina: Rosie King)

Impact of the bushfires

Last month Mr Barilaro called for a halt to the planned removal of wild horses from three sensitive areas within the park in July, claiming it would be “reckless” to remove horses without an additional survey after the summer’s bushfire season.

But Professor Geoff Hope, a scientist at the Australian National University, said aerial surveys had shown few brumbies were directly impacted by the bushfires.

“The horses mostly outran the fires,” Professor Hope said.

“And there was a substantial amount of rain afterwards and a lot of re-sprouting, which would have stopped them from going hungry, so the horse numbers haven’t significantly dropped.”

An older man wearing purple glasses and a beanie, standing on a plain in Kosciuszko National Park.
Professor Geoff Hope has grave concerns for a number of native species under threat because of alarmingly high wild horse numbers.(ABC Riverina: Rosie King)

And that concerns Professor Hope gravely.

“With these really high densities of horses, we’re seeing streamlines change, swamps being trampled in and the whole landscape becoming more like a grazing paddock,” he said.

“The trampling affects things like the alpine spiny crayfish and the corroboree frog, as well as animals like the smoky mouse.

“And the horses are out-grazing a lot of the grazers, that’s the small wallabies and larger kangaroos.

A crayfish claw sits in a puddle with flattened reeds in Kosciuszko National Park.
The alpine spiny crayfish is one native species experts say is under threat because of booming brumby numbers.(ABC News: Greg Nelson)

A tourist drawcard

For people living in small towns in and around the Snowy Mountains, there seems to be agreement that brumby numbers in Kosciuszko National Park are too high.

What they don’t agree on, though, is what to do about them.

A smiling woman with brown hair wearing a purple polo shirt and standing outside a bakery.
Linda Squire has lived in Adaminaby for 23 years and believes the brumbies bring a lot of tourists through the small town.(ABC Riverina: Rosie King)

“A lot of people come here to see the brumbies — they’re a tourist attraction,” Linda Squire, who has lived in Adaminaby for 23 years, said.

“I do think they need to reduce them but not by aerial shooting or shooting of any kind: they shouldn’t suffer.”

Scott O’Brien, who owns a property near Cooma, spends a lot of time exploring the national park.

“I work with a lot of international tourists, and a lot of them come to Australia for the native wildlife,” Mr O’Brien said.

“Horses are beautiful, spirited animals but they’re not native — you can see them anywhere.

A young man wearing an Akubra, sitting at a table in a park with a coffee and his laptop.
Scott O’Brien spends a lot of time exploring Kosciuszko National Park.(ABC Riverina: Rosie King)

For Mr Swain, there is no question: “We should be using every tool in the toolbox to reduce numbers, including aerial culling.”

Professor Hope agreed.

“The numbers are now at the point where it’s acknowledged that we can’t rehome them all and trapping is very expensive — up to $1,200 a horse — and the maximum trap rate, when it occurs, is about 1,000 horses per year,” he said.

“We need to remove, on our present population estimates, around 4,000 horses a year.

“I’m afraid we’re going to have to go into more direct control methods and naturally, shooting horses is much cheaper and can be done pretty efficiently.”

Mr Lanyon disputes the population estimates, the evidence of damage in Kosciuszko National Park and the need for greater control methods.

A brown brumby with a blond mane stands in the sun in Kosciuszko National Park.
Many Australians consider the high country brumbies to be a national icon, immortalised by Banjo Patterson.(ABC Riverina: Rosie King)

Where to from here?

Given the bitter division that remains in New South Wales and the legal battle raging in Victoria to stop 600 brumbies from being shot in the Alpine National Park, Mr Swain believes it is time for the Federal Government to intervene and develop a national brumby management plan.

“It’s definitely time for the Federal Government to step in, follow the science and do what’s right for this country,” he said.

“We have an opportunity to have a feral-free Australia — we’re an island.

“Future generations will hold us to account for the decisions we’re making now,” Mr Swain said.

Two brown wild horses stand among the trees in Kosciuszko National Park.
A survey of Kosciuszko National Park last year estimated the brumby population had hit around 20,000.(ABC News: Greg Nelson)

Mr Barilaro does not agree Commonwealth intervention is needed and neither does Mr Lanyon.

“We’ve always had an open-door policy on this side, but they retreat behind the wall of so-called scientific fact.”



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Kosciuszko National Park to partly close as ski resorts prepare COVID-safe measures


Roadblocks will be used to prevent public access to parts of Kosciuszko National Park over the June long weekend in an effort to minimise a potential coronavirus outbreak ahead of the start of the ski season.

Large crowds traditionally flock to the Snowy Mountains over the long weekend as the date signifies the start of the snow season, but the temporary and partial closure of the park this year will prevent visitor access to alpine resorts and the Main Range around Mount Kosciuszko.

Mick Pettitt, from the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), said the closure would allow the park, and associated businesses within it, more time to prepare COVID-safe policies and procedures.

It’s to give us some time to make sure we get it right without large numbers of people coming down so we do have a successful start to the season, and a season that can continue right through winter.”

The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service will be partially closing Kosciuszko National Park for the long weekend
“Don’t go to the resorts this long weekend, they’re not open,” says Mick Pettitt.(Supplied: Lesley Pettitt)

A roadblock will be in place on Kosciuszko Road at Wilsons Valley on Friday that will prevent access to Perisher and Charlotte Pass ski resorts.

The roadblock is expected to be removed the following Monday.

No snow play

The NPWS said Alpine Way would not be blocked because it had been deemed a major through road for interstate traffic.

However, the area between Bullocks Flat and Dead Horse Gap (which passes by Thredbo Ski Resort), will be regularly patrolled to prevent snow play and tobogganing.

“We want to make sure people don’t stop on the side of the road and congregate there — it’s all about self-distancing,” Mr Pettitt said.

The NPWS said residents, employees and contractors would still be allowed access to the park.

The ABC understands that the partial closure means visitors booked to stay in Thredbo Village, Perisher Valley and Charlotte Pass over the long weekend will no longer be able to.

Once the ski fields within Kosciuszko National Park reopen from June 22, visitors will be required to pre-book their accommodation and resort access passes.

Thredbo Resort is set to open on June 22, Perisher Ski Resort will open two days later, Charlotte Pass says it will operate from June 26, while Selwyn Snow Resort will remain closed this season due to bushfire damage.



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