Dead Horse Gap: The Brumby Debate

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.

Brumbies at Gooandra Homestead, at the Mid Winter Feast

Brumbies at Gooandra Homestead, at the Mid Winter Feast

Brumbies at Gooandra Homestead, at the Mid Winter Feast

Brumbies at Gooandra Homestead, at the Mid Winter Feast

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.

Brumbies near Kiandra, from a trip to Gooandra Homestead

Brumbies near Kiandra, from a trip to Gooandra Homestead

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.

Brumbies in the Victorian High Country, Falls Creek

Brumbies in the Victorian High Country, Falls Creek

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.


29 thoughts on “Dead Horse Gap: The Brumby Debate

    • Thank you! The guest post is interesting… and the comments section even more so! This is a perfect example of what I said in my post, that reading below the line gives you an idea of the divide in the community on this issue. It also demonstrates the level of emotion in the debate, particularly on the part of the brumby advocates.

      Your own post analysing the comments section is excellent, and I particularly like your argument that “in Australia brumbies function as an avatar, through which we, as non-Aboriginals, mediate our anxieties of belonging.” Indeed, our complex sense of nationalism ties in very strongly with horses, to the point where we blame other feral mammals for the destruction wrought by horses – or, perhaps even more interesting, put up less of a fight against the culling of the native kangaroo.

      Thanks for sharing, and I look forward to following your blog!

    • Exactly Caroline – money is always the issue, and money has to come from somewhere. The issue gained lots of political momentum after the 2000 NSW aerial culling, but brumby management requires ongoing bipartisan support, not a short cycle of media attention.

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  4. “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.”
    Yes! I love this quote!

    Beautiful photos as always, Miss Jess. I also thought the post was wonderful. Very informative!

    • Thank you my dear! I should hope that it is somewhat informative, since I spent a day researching this post rather than researching my thesis 😉
      So this isn’t an issue that you studied in environmental science?

  5. To see your photos was heartwrenching … the last brumby, a mere bag of bones, will die before the day is out … it is down, with the 3 half-eaten carcasses of its mates nearby. Too weak to do more than flip it’s ears and the crows are already circling … So much for the NPWS saying that they are “monitoring the situation” . More humane monitoring would have been to euthanase them seeing as it would have been impossible to evacuate them, and they were already too weak from starvation to, themselves, push through the deep snow to safety.
    By putting them down the Parks would have saved face whilst also attaining their own goal of reducing brumby numbers. Whether for ar against the brumbies, there is no excuse for letting them suffer unnecessarily.

    • When did you see the brumbies Marion?
      I too had been hoping for a quick bullet rather than a slow week or three for the brumbies, though I’ve not been able to get through to Parks and Wildlife for an official comment yet, besides my friend’s report that they were monitoring the situation.

      • Hi Jessica, I ski Dead Horse Gap and the Ramsheads regularly (on an average of twice a week), although I haven’t had the heart to go back since the last horse died on the13th. Friends have also told me they saw, in late July, a small group on Ramshead that also had a death but I have not been there to see for myself.
        If you would like to discuss this when you are next in Thredbo you can contact me through K7 Adventures.

      • Thank you for sharing your information and your compassion Marion. As much as I am torn about the theoretically management of brumbies in the high country, when it comes to individual horses the answer seems much neater: show them mercy. Nevertheless, I can appreciate not only the difficult political situation for Parks and Wildlife, but also the expensive logistics. I’ve heard anecdotally that PWS has moved several mobs of snow-trapped brumbies already this season, and perhaps there was no time or resources for this afflicted mob, as heart-wrenching as it is on a personal level. We can only give them the benefit of the doubt, and ask that other brumbies not suffer the same fate.

      • I’ve been wondering the same thing. When we informed the person at the NP pass ticket booth near Thredbo about the situation and asked her to pass the information on, she said that it was quite sad, but wondered whether the NPWS would be allowed to shoot the brumbies or not, given the controversy of the issue in NSW. It would be interesting to know whether in Victoria or the ACT, without the shadow of the Guy Fawkes River culling hanging over them, the NPWS there would have been able to put them down immediately. In any case, everyone that I’ve called in NPWS has been very sympathetic, but I have not yet been able to determine what action – if any – has been taken, since I’m yet to manage to get through to the Ranger.

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  10. Lack of political will is what I think is holding back resolving this issue.
    However good for the environment a negotiated agreement between the different sides may be, there’ll be little to no extra votes in it. And it’ll take money from the budget to implement whatever plan is agreed upon. Therefore, easier to leave it for tomorrow, and if a few more horses starve we can always blame the Parks & Wildlife / EPA people for not doing more, sooner.
    I enjoyed reading your blog posts. They seem pretty balanced on a tricky topic, to me. 😊

    • Thanks Dayna! It’s a difficult topic to achieve balance on, so I’m really glad to hear to hear that my attempts worked! I agree with you, in that any strong action will see strong opposition from one side or the other, which means that politicians are avoiding the topic as much as they can.

    • Fertility treatment is certainly one of the options being considered by the latest review, and also being considered in New Zealand! It’s very exciting when the latest science can be applied to reduce the suffering of animals. Another great example is the cat eradication on Tasman Island, where instead of using 1080 (which is apparently not a pleasant death) scientists developed a toxin specifically for the cats, so that they could basically die in their sleep, and in so doing no longer cull up to 10,000 nesting sea birds a year as they had been doing.

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