Ribs prominent beneath a winter coat, and hardly enough energy left to acknowledge our presence, the three brumbies stare at our group of telemark skiiers. It has been a week since the last real snowfall, and the marks on this snow tell us the whole story: the brumbies have moved less than 10 metres in that time, eaten only dead snowgum wood and some leaves, passed none of this through their bodies, and left the corpse of the smallest horse at one end of their tiny trail, its face now half-eaten by crows and foxes.
It is like seeing ghosts. The rest of this small mob will be dead within a week.
My previous experiences with brumbies have always involved a chuckle at the size of them: like laughing at a plump baby, my amusement is partly admiration for their health. But unlike grinning along with a plump baby, my laugh is also driven by the uncertainty of my views about brumbies, and my conflicted response to them. There is a brumby debate, and there are strong opinions on both sides of the turmoil.
Brumby is the name given to feral horses in Australia. Even this vague description is fraught with political implication – I could equally have said that “Brumbies are Australian wild horses,” or “Brumbies are pest animals in Australia.” The Australian National Dictionary defines brumby as: 1. A wild horse, and 2. A (partially) tamed wild horse (see quot. 1948); a worn-out or ill-bred horse. While the AND states that the word is of unknown origin, its usage dates back to at least 1880. Interestingly, the traditional collective noun for brumbies is mob, rather than the usual herd.
Brumbies have a wide heritage, being the descendants of various breeds of horses that have escaped or been set loose since European colonisation. For a longer history of brumbies, see Part One of Dobbie et. al’s 1993 book. In short, brumby numbers have been on the rise since colonial times: between 1830 and 1850 alone, they increased from an estimated 14 000 to 160 000 and were first recognised as feral pests in Australia in the 1860’s (Michelle Dawson). These days, they are the largest population of wild horses in the world, and their numbers continue to increase. They have been in the Australian Alpine region, of New South Wales and Victoria, for 150 years, and have historically been managed by pastoralists and brumby runners (Brumby running being the rounding up of brumbies on horseback). However, cattle do even more damage to the high country than brumbies (and this is a whole other, furiously-fought debate), so with cattlemen gone from the high country, these days it is the Parks and Wildlife Service who is responsible for managing brumby numbers.
Save The Brumbies
In the words of the Australian Brumby Alliance Inc, this side of the debate is “Dedicated to the recognition, management, preservation and welfare of Australian Wild Horses.” More generally, this is the side that – to a greater or lesser extent – supports keeping the population of wild brumbies in Australia.
This opinion is largely driven by two arguments: heritage and animal rights. While there are strong emotions on both sides of the debate, this side tends to validate a more emotional response to brumbies.
The animal rights debate is problematic. The premise is that humans are responsible for the existence of brumbies, and that brumbies are sentient and feeling animals that have a right to life, and that they especially have a right not to be killed in an inhumane way. Certainly, most people would agree that it is not the brumbies’ fault that they live in the high country, and that they do deserve to be killed in a humane way, if killed at all. However, the right of the brumbies to life per se is a much more difficult assumption. Part of the incentive for culls in the high country actually comes from welfare concerns for the animals, such as the brumbies near Dead Horse Gap* that opened this post. The Victorian RSPCA supports culls that are performed humanely for this reason, since managing numbers leads directly to less starvation in drought years. But the other issue with the rights of brumbies is that it is a speciesist logic that validates the life of brumbies above the lives of native animals, and above the ecosystem in general. I would be very interested to hear a defence of this position that takes into account these critiques of the right of brumbies to live in the high country. Nevertheless, we can assume that most people would strongly defend the right of the brumbies to die humanely, or to be passively trapped and relocated.
The other argument is the heritage argument, and this seems to be very widely held. A considerable amount of Australia’s myths and heritage are connected with brumbies and the high country, from Banjo Patterson’s poetry, to the Silver Brumby books by Elyne Mitchell, to the brumbies used as war horses. There are obvious flaws in the heritage argument, the most prominent being that we cherry-pick which parts of our heritage we wish to maintain and which we wish to ignore (are cane toads part of our heritage too? And what about the displaced Aboriginal heritage, which did not involve horses? This latter point is brilliantly analysed by Horses For Discourses). Afterall, there is no inherent and necessary logic to maintaining something simply because it used to happen. Nevertheless, we do have a strong cultural and romantic attachment to brumbies that would be ridiculous to ignore. Most people enjoy spotting brumbies in the high country, and the wild horses continue to draw tourists and locals alike.
There are many organisations that work actively towards the preservation of brumbies, both in the wild and as domesticated mounts. This includes the Save the Brumbies group, as well as the Victorian Brumby Association, and the Snowy Mountains Bush Users Group.
Ultimately, brumbies are not native – but neither is European culture, and the two are intimately connected. On the other hand, privileging heritage that involves brumbies dismisses other, equally valid ways of enjoying the high country, such as conservation efforts to re-establish high country wildflowers in the wake of cattle and horses, or even simply bushwalking without seeing the effects of horses (there are strong emotions and emotional responses on this side of the debate too). Which brings me neatly to my next heading…
Remove The Brumbies
This preference is largely driven by conservation and science. However, this is not to claim that science always has unbiased or even accurate answers: an excellent example of questioning the numbers used in a scientific publication came from the Tumut and Adelong community, who held a community meeting to discuss whether there could possibly be as many brumbies in one area as was claimed. However, while they may dispute the science, brumby advocates rarely present any science in return (although the idea of horses reducing the fuel for and thus the severity and incidence of bushfires is thrown around a lot, there is no scientific evidence of it), resulting in the two sides talking different languages.
The brumby removal argument is also based on an interesting premise: that *something* is better off without brumbies. The native Australian environment? Absolutely! As much as the other side can question this, ultimately the science does overwhelmingly point towards damage done by brumbies. (If you want some evidence, read any scientific publication about brumbies… ever. Put simply, the Australian alpine environment had never experienced hard-hooved mammals until the introduction of cattle and horses, and consequently these animals do considerable damage to delicate alpine plants, as well as polluting waterways.) But this just brings in bigger problems of environmental ethics. The environment, more’s the pity for it, does not exist without humans, and whether it should or not is strongly debated.
Here’s an example of how the ethics play out, comparing cattle with brumbies. Both cattle and horses damage the environment, both have heritage value, and both have stakeholders who can benefit from their presence in the high country. From a utilitarian perspective, however, there is a reason that cattle have been taken out of the high country and brumbies have not. The density of cattle to brumbies was higher, meaning more damage to the environment. The heritage value of cattlemen is probably similar to that of brumbies – afterall, the cattlemen built most of the wonderful high country huts, and are connected culturally with brumbies. However, there were fewer stakeholders in the cattle debate, and with more vested interest. While brumbies may make children happy, so too do wildflowers, which are growing back since the removal of cattle (compare the Kosciuszko and Victorian high plains: the longer the cattle have been gone, the more flowers there are). Cattlemen also serve to benefit economically from cattle in the high country, much as tourism operators do from brumbies, but the latter with wider community rewards. While this is a massively oversimplified argument (and I can explore the actually much more complicated cattle in the high country debate if people are interested), it serves to show that a utilitarian logic is in place: more reward, for more people, for less cost, means that the brumbies have stayed and the cattle have left.
But few scientists actually advocate for the complete removal of brumbies, just as the brumby preservation groups advocate for brumby management rather than allowing them to breed up uncontrollably. Both sides actually want something very similar: a controlled population of brumbies, to reduce the compromises on both the environment and our cultural heritage. Yet they seem to struggle to talk with each other. Read below the line of any online article about brumbies, and there will be people calling for culling all the brumbies (for various reasons, not all scientific), and there will be people lashing out against the government and the Parks and Wildlife service for their management of brumbies. This is partly due to the now-infamous NSW aerial cull in the Guy Fawkes River National Park in 2000, where images of dead and wounded brumbies sparked outrage across the country. Yet this outrage is partly directed against Rangers and the Parks and Wildlife Service, who already stuggle with limited funds to meet the expectations of these disparate stakeholders. This brings me neatly to my final consideration, being the management of the brumbies.
Manage The Brumbies
While both sides agree that brumby numbers need to be managed, there is disagreement as to how this should happen. Passive trapping has been used in NSW since the 2000 aerial cull, which brumby advocates agree with, but passive trapping cannot keep up with the expanding brumby population. Furthermore, even when brumbies are captured, not all of them can be rehomed, since many brumby training and rehoming organisations are also charities stuggling for funding. EDIT: Curiously, I have since been contacted by a friend who argues that all captured brumbies should be worth a small fortune if they are proved to be Waler horses, as these have a high value.
Other methods of control include the traditional brumby running, but this divides the brumby advocate community, since brumby running has been argued to be a cruel means of capture. Aerial culling is performed in Queensland and the Northern Territory, but brumby advocates argue that it is unsuited to the alpine environment. Ultimately, however, the Parks and Wildlife Service is severely restricted by their limited budget (it costs $1074 per horse removed by passive trapping, and the more than $2.8 million spent since 2002 has resulted in only 2600 horses caught, with a mere 36% of them rehomed since 2012 due to low demand for brumbies: click this for these stats and more), which means that infertility programs and more extensive passive trapping are out of their reach.
So what does all of this mean for the starving brumbies at Dead Horse Gap? Nothing, actually. The brumby debate is irrelevant to their personal plight. And so I am left without a clear idea of how brumbies in the alpine regions need to be managed, except the conclusion that they need to be managed.
If I have glossed too quickly over any part of these morally complicated arguments, or I’ve misrepresented something, or there is anything else that anyone would like to add, then I would welcome comments. My own thoughts on this issue are convoluted and grey, since I think that both sides make valid points!
*Dead Horse Gap seems to have reaffirmed the appropriateness of its name this winter, although I cannot find a reliable source about the original naming of this area. Both Australian Geographical Name Derivations and the Upper Murray River website (randomly) state that Dead Horse Gap was named for dead brumbies.
More more information, see the ABC’s excellent discussion of the debate.
Or the one from The Land.
Or from The Independent.
Or from the ABC Bush Telegraph, which includes the revelation that people are intentionally releasing horses into the wild to bolster the brumby population.
Post Script: Last I heard, the Parks and Wildlife Service was monitoring the brumbies at Dead Horse Gap after we’d reported them.
Post Post Script: As you can read in the comments below, the brumbies have all starved to death in the same location. Parks and Wildlife are still yet to answer my calls, although a friend of mine has been in contact with them, and they’ve told her that they managed to get several other brumby mobs from the snow. Another analysis of the brumby debate from this starting point has just been published by Gabrielle Chan of the Guardian Australia.
Post Post Post Script: The Conversation have even more recently written an article about how starving brumbies at Dead Horse Gap have actually turned to cannibalisation, the first documented account of this. Others, however, such as the Save the Brumbies organisation, have voiced strong opposition to the validity of such claims.
For those who are interested in this issue, there is online consultation run by the NSW Parks and Wildlife Service that is open until November.
A photo from this blog and a co-authored article by myself and Campbell Phillips now appears on the Wild Magazine website.
This interest in brumbies has now led me to volunteering in the science of estimating brumby numbers.