Brumby population drops in Kosciuszko

Brumbies gather after the devastating fires in January 2020.

The New South Wales government announced this week that the trapping and re-homing of wild horses in Kosciuszko National Park will continue, after a new population survey showed a decrease in numbers.

The new survey shows that there are just over 14,000 wild horses in the KNP, a loss of around 5,000 from last year’s count of 19,000.

Environment Minister Matt Kean first announced the recount last August. There was a count in 2019, with population surveys usually occurring every four years; however it was brought forward following pressure from Deputy Premier John Barilaro.

At the time, Mr Barilaro argued that the 2019 count of 19,000 was too high, and because of the impact of drought and bushfires on herds, the need to reduce numbers was not so urgent.

Announcing the new survey results on Wednesday, Mr Kean said that the data demonstrates the need to manage the wild horse population through measures such as the ongoing trapping and re-homing program.

“I remain 100% committed to managing the very sensitive areas of the iconic Kosciuszko National Park on the basis of the best available science,” Mr Kean said.

The Minister attributes the population decrease to the impact of drought, last summer’s bushfires and the movement of horses in and out of the park.

“We will always have wild horses in Kosci, but 14,000 is still too many. If we want to preserve this precious place and the plants and animals that call it home, we need to manage horse numbers responsibly,” Mr Kean said.

“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.”

Member for Wagga Wagga, Dr Joe McGirr, said the release of the new report reinforces the need to control the population, and that “there are too many feral horses in the park.”

“The report reinforces how important it is to control the number of feral horses and to preserve Kosciuszko National Park and the source of major rivers – the Murray, Murrumbidgee and Snowy,” he said.

“This is a fragile ecosystem and some of our unique species of Alpine flora and fauna are threatened by these hard-hooved wild horses.”

Dr McGirr also recently sponsored a NSW Parliament e-petition, calling on the government to reduce the numbers of wild horses in the Park.

“I will continue to push the Government for the humane reduction of the feral horse population,” he said.

“I welcome comments made by both Environment Minister Matt Kean and Deputy Premier John Barilaro reinforcing the need to control the number of feral horses in our iconic ‘Kosci’.”

Throughout 2020, over 340 horses were removed from the park via the trapping and re-homing program. Last November, a National Parks and Wildlife Services (NPWS) spokesperson told The Times that of the then-281 horses removed, 95 per cent had been rehomed, with the remaining horses sent to the knackery.

The removal operation remains ongoing in the Nungar, Cooleman and Kiandra Plains, pending the finalisation of the new wild horse management plan.

The new survey results are said to be informing the draft management plan, which will set out how to reduce the horse population to a sustainable level, protecting the environment and recognising the wild brumby’s heritage value.

The Deputy Premier, who introduced the Wild Horse Heritage Act in 2018 to protect the heritage of KNP brumbies, has seemingly had a dramatic change of heart towards this issue, saying that some areas of the Park should be free of wild horses.

Speaking to The Sydney Morning Herald, Mr Barilaro said, “We must reduce the number of brumbies, whether it’s down to 600, 1000, or 3000. 

“There are parts of the park that should have zero horses.”

Reclaim Kosci, a lobby group that has been advocating for the removal of wild horses from the Park, welcomed Mr Barilaro’s comments.

“Now that Mr Barilaro supports a science-based horse management plan, Reclaim Kosci looks forward to working constructively with the NSW government on the rapid implementation of a new plan,” Reclaim Kosci conservation officer Candice Bartlett said.

Alan Lanyon of the Snowy Mountains Brumby Sustainability and Management Group (SMBSMG) is a long-time brumby advocate, and rejects the outcome of the population survey.

“The number 14,000 is still a fraud, perpetrated by Minister Kean, the state Liberal and National party government, National Parks and Wildlife Services,” he said.

Mr Lanyon and other brumby advocates have criticised the methodology used in the 2014 and 2019 surveys – and now the 2020 survey – as “deeply flawed.”

“We won’t support those figures in any way shape or form,” he said.

“We still subscribe to the number of around 2300 to 2500 horses in the northern end of Kosciuszko National Park.”

Mr Lanyon believes that the government is working towards a total elimination of brumbies from the KNP.

“It doesn’t matter what they say, it doesn’t matter what [Matt] Kean says, they’re committed to a zero horse population despite Barilaro’s bill,” he said.

Last year the SMBSMG took the state government and the NPWS Chief Executive to court in a bid to stop the trapping and removal program, but were unsuccessful.

Mr Lanyon said that the capacity for rehoming is reaching its limit.

“The rehoming side of it has just about reached maximum capacity,” he said.

“There’s not too many new people coming forward to take horses; I mean, horses aren’t like a cat or a dog.”

Like most people following this issue, Mr Lanyon is eagerly awaiting the release of the horse management plan for public viewing.

“I have an idea that there are some aspects that most brumby supporters won’t support, so we’ll just have to wait and see what the entire document is,” he said.