The warm breeze of late summer in the Australian alpine meadows wafts gently through the wildflowers… laden with the pungent and heavy smell of horse.
This is actually a less distressing experience than my last encounter with brumbies, when I came across a starving mob at Dead Horse Gap last winter, but no less conflicting. The debate between those who wish to preserve and those who wish to control the brumbies rages on as the Victorian and New South Wales Wild Horse Management Plans come under review. Underpinning this conflict are two major questions: what is the role of brumbies in the high country, and how many of them are there/should there be?
The answer to the first question is contentious, and depends on your personal perspective, as discussed after I last saw brumbies. The second question is also up for debate, as proved when the Tumut and Adelong community contested the official brumby count. So how do you know how many brumbies are in an area?
Well, that’s what we were in the high country to find out.
An accurate ability to count a population is the basis for all decisions about that population. In regards to the brumbies of Australian Alps, it all started back in 1992 when a review of these brumbies recommended that an action plan be developed. This action plan was to be preceded by a key study of wild horse demography and their ecology, which became the Doctoral Thesis of Michelle Walter, now (and hereby referred to as) Michelle Dawson. The Australian Alps Liaison Committee funded this work, and it was summarised and published as The Population Ecology of Feral Horses in the Australian Alps Management Summary (and thank goodness too, because this summary is a mere 15 pages, unlike a full thesis). Prior to this thesis the only population estimates had been anecdotal, so Dawson decided to use aerial surveying, “often the only practical way of estimating the size of populations of large animals ranging over large areas.” Using this method, horse numbers have been seen to steadily grow, especially after the set-back of the devastating 2003 fires that swept through much of the alpine region. These numbers have been neatly summarised by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage staff during their community consultation period at the end of last year.
2003 – 2006
2006 – 2009
2009 – 2012
2012 – 2014
Alps Pending release of latest results
(Alps = Brumby population in the Victorian and New South Wales alpine region. KNP = Brumby population in Kosciuszko National Park. Removed refers to the number of horses taken out of the alpine region by the passive trapping method employed by the Parks service. The latest survey was undertaken by Dr Stuart Cairns rather than Dr Michelle Dawson.)
This consultation forum also brought to the surface a lot of the distrust felt for these statistics by the community. Some people questioned how estimates from a helicopter could possibly be accurate, others contradicted the findings with their own anecdotal evidence, and some went so far as to accuse the scientists and Parks service of blatantly lying to the public in order to justify a call for brumby culls. This distrust partly stems from the perception of an inaccurate count concerning the Pilot Wilderness area of the southern Kosciuszko National Park in 2013. Two academics produced a report from a two day observation of the area that expressed their concern with the number of horses in the area, which the media grossly misrepresented by claiming that the authors had estimated a count of 14,000 horses in the Pilot Wilderness. Conversely, the authors had only used this number to indicate the total number of horses in the entire Alpine region, and even that was marked as a forecasted estimate made by Michelle Dawson in 2009. In any case, this misrepresentation was taken as fact, opening up doubt about survey numbers, and subsequent counts (necessarily lower than 14,000, since this number was never actually claimed) were hailed as a victory over the “‘Crap Trap’ being delivered for personal financial gain”.
Of course, the report was not intended as a brumby count, and nor did it claim that 14,000 brumbies existed within the 43km2 of Pilot Wilderness in question (for that matter, it made no claim to have counted horse numbers at all). But it has helped to fuel the conspiracy that the Parks service has a hidden agenda, and that brumby numbers are fictions to sustain the corruption.
But if the aerial counts are considered a load of crap, then how do you count the brumbies in ways that will convince the public?
Well, by literally counting loads of crap.
Accurate and repeatable estimates of population size, distribution and growth
are necessary for the appropriate management of populations. For the
management of icon species, such as wild horses, rigorous estimates of
population size and change that can be defended in scientific, public and legal
forums are imperative if management is to proceed with minimal hindrance.
– Linklater, Cameron, Stafford, Minot 2001
A study in 2001 by a group of New Zealand scientists examined the use of aerial surveys for population estimations, and recommended using different techniques more suited to the New Zealand topography*. Since one of these authors had eventually gone to Tasmania where she became the Honours Supervisor of a good friend of mine, she was called in to estimate the brumby population for the management plan of the national parks, my friend was called in to run a few months of field work, and I was eventually called in as a field assistant. Being a PhD candidate of literature, I was ostensibly not the most immediately logical choice, but my time four-wheel-driving with the State Emergency Service (SES) and being outdoors with the Australian National University Mountaineering Club made me reasonably useful, even if my queries about why a boulder was inadequate for placement of a field camera were met with patient explanation of the rock’s unsuitability.
Following the New Zealand method, we spent a week in the northern Kosciuszko National Park, mixing observations and camera data with transects and dung plots to get an indication of population density. I was astonished to find that on the Cooleman and Currango Plains, the horse density was so high that a 200 metre line, randomly drawn through the grass, would yield at least thirty piles of horse dung within a metre of either side of the line. This number was often higher, once reaching nearly seventy piles of dung within the 200 metre transect.
This is not to say that the horses have eaten the plains bare. Conversely, the plains were as full of wildflowers as they were of horse dung, and a few mobs of kangaroos (though far fewer than the brumby mobs) bounded across the alpine grass hillocks.
There was also lots of smaller life, like the brightly coloured Mountain Katydid, and many spiders.
Moreover, there were ominous howls in the evening from the roaming packs of wild dogs, especially at the Currango Plains.
How much damage the horses are doing and exactly how many there are, however, is to be determined by more than a few days in the high country, which is exactly the point of independent science. So I’ll be aiming to get out in the field as a volunteer again, and keep the conversation about the brumby population going. After all, the work may be with dung, and my own thoughts on the number of horses consequently ungenerous, but it will always be adorable to watch a foal scratch its head with its back hoof, and it will always be magical to spend time in the high country.
*Michelle Dawson (then Walter) did actually comment on the problems of over-counting found in New Zealand aerial surveys in her article A Comparison of 3 Aerial Survey Techniques to Estimate Wild Horse Abundance in the Australian Alps, and concluded that her methodology was adequate for determining brumby population estimates (compared with the New Zealand goal of a full horse consensus, something that is acheivable with their proposed full mustering, capturing and marking methodology applied to a mere 300 or so Kaimanawa horses, and not conceivable for the many thousands of brumbies in the Australian Alpine regions).