ANU Prof. denies claims horse grazing in KNP reduces fire risk

Anti-brumby groups say horses are damaging creek beds, such as here at Little Peppercorn Creek.

The control of feral animals and weeds, protection of native species and better investment in land management should be a priority as natural environments like Kosciuszko National Park continue recovering from the devastating fires last summer, said ANU Professor Jamie Pittock.

A professor in environmental policy at the Fenner School of Environment & Society, Prof. Pittock says that the impact of hard-hooved, grazing animals following fire events cannot be underestimated.

He reached out to The Times following an article last month with former Monaro MP Peter Cochran, who is a strong advocate for fuel reduction via grazing, as well as logging, which is currently prohibited in national parks.

Prof. Pittock argues that these methods of fire prevention are “counterintuitive”.

“People might think that a big animal eating grass reduces fire risk, but the opposite is true, because it’s encouraging growth of very flammable shrubs that make these bushfires worse,” he said.

“The grazing animals damage the alpine grasslands, they create erosion and gaps between the grasses and that enables a lot of the alpine shrubs and seedlings to germinate and grow, and so it increases the extent of these very flammable alpine shrubs.”

Prof. Pittock grew up in Victoria and spent a lot of his youth in the Australian Alps, particularly on the Bogong High Plains.

It was in this region that Maisie Carr, a pioneer for women in Australian science, established one of the longest-running experiments on the impacts of grazing.

“I think that there are some people who are so focused on making the case for keeping the feral horses in the mountains that they’ll come up with all sorts of conjecture about why [grazing is] a good idea, but sadly it’s just not based in evidence at all,” Prof. Pittock said.

He said that one of the most prominent impacts of wild horses – and other grazing animals – in the KNP is the destruction of peat swamps and moss bogs, which rely on constantly being wet and function “sort of like a fire blanket.”

“The problem is that horses, and also cattle, love eating some of the plants that grow on these moss bogs, and so they’ll walk through there and crush the moss and the peat and they create drainage lines,” Prof. Pittock said.

“So, the water drains out of the peat, which dries out, and when you get extreme conditions like we had last year, the fire can get in and burn the peat. 

“That means we’re losing a really valuable resource because these moss bogs, they resist fire, they act as these green fire breaks, they’re like giant sponges on top of the mountains, they hold a lot of water and gradually release it into the streams.”

He also said that moss bogs are home to endangered species such as the Northern Corrobboree Frog, who burrow down 10 centimetres to make a nesting chamber.

“That doesn’t go so well when you’ve got a 400-kilo [animal] standing on it,” Prof. Pittock said.

He believes that the difference in attitude towards feral species like pigs and deer, compared to wild horses, is cultural.

“Lots of people have grown up riding horses, members of pony clubs, grown up on the land with horses on the farm, and they categorise horses as a friendly domestic animal that’s somehow different from a pig or a deer,” Prof. Pittock said.

“I’d really ask readers to think through the consequences of saying we should protect a damaging feral animal like a horse just because it looks cute.”

Prof. Pittock said that he saw first-hand wild horses going into burnt sections of the Park where native regrowth had already begun.

“I was in a helicopter up along Snowy Mountains Highway and around Tantangara Reservoir and in places like Nungar Plain, where the fire had gone through and burnt the grassland and burnt over the peat swamps, [and] I saw mobs of horses standing right in the middle of that and eating the green vegetation growing up,” he recounted.

Responding to calls for logging to be re-introduced in national parks, Prof. Pittock said this would be “extremely environmentally damaging,” and that the focus should be on encouraging the growth of fire-resistant native plants.

“Whenever you log you need to take in heavy machinery … and that does a lot of damage in terms of bringing in weeds, causing erosion,” he added.

The debate around land management and the future of wild horses in Kosciuszko National Park is contentious, with people on both sides of the argument holding very strong views. When asked how we can move forward and work towards an ideal outcome for the environment and for future fire prevention, Prof. Pittock said there is common ground to be found.

“I think we can all agree that Australia’s not investing enough in good land management,” he began.

“I, and my other scientific colleagues, believe that our society as a whole – and our governments in particular – need to invest more money in rural communities to support land management by landholders, and on public land.”

Some ideas touted by Prof. Pittock include stewardship payments for farmers who set aside areas of their farmland for native flora and fauna, as well as financial incentives for landholders to keep their stock out of rivers and creeks.

“I think that there’s a lot to be done; a lot of consensus can be built around those shared goals,” he concluded.

Kosciuszko recovering well after fires

Bushfire recovery is ongoing in Kosciuszko National Park following the devastating bushfires of last summer, with planning underway to determine the future of the mountain huts and Kiandra precinct.

A spokesperson for the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE) said that the park is “recovering well” following one of the best spring’s in many years.

“Although some heavily impacted areas are recovering more slowly,” they added.

The spokesperson said that a large amount of work is being undertaken to replace burnt and damaged infrastructure such as roads, tracks and walking trails as well as picnic and camping areas and associated facilities.

“Most of the park’s visitor areas have reopened however some roads remain closed while contractors work to repair erosion and pavement damage following heavy rains early in 2020,” they said.

All major infrastructure that was burnt during the fires, including fire towers, the mountain huts and buildings in the Kiandra precinct, have now been removed and the sites made safe.

“Detailed planning is underway to decide the future of the mountain huts and Kiandra Precinct with decisions yet to be made regarding the future management of each facility,” the spokesperson said.