Drought and Sydney’s softening housing market have been blamed for a slide in the NSW surplus forecasts in the state government’s half-year budget review.
Do brumbies have any practical use, or are they just a nuisance animal?
There is beauty in that freedom. The untamed spirit. Brumbies are part of the mythology of Australia; a tangible link to a wild colonial past. Immortalised for generations in the Silver Brumby novel series by Elyne Mitchell as well as Banjo Paterson’s The Man From Snowy River. The valuable colt that got away and joined the wild bush horses. “On a dim and distant hillside the wild horses racing yet, With the man from Snowy River at their heels.”
“Most Australians are a bit brumby,” says the Guy Fawkes Heritage Horse Association’s Erica Jessup. “They epitomise our culture.”
Australia has more wild horses than anywhere else in the world: between 400,000 and one million. But their existence is under threat and highly contentious, with many environmentalists viewing them as feral pests, trespassers and a menace to native wildlife. Polarised interest groups are currently ranged against each other over the Wild Horse Management Plan Review for south-east NSW’s Kosciuszko National Park. “We are watching this closely,” says Lawrence Orel, a spokesman for Guy Fawkes River National Park.
The brumbies’ time may be running out. “They have every right to be there, as much as any animal,” says Hyde. “They have been there much longer than the national parks.”
Everything changed with the great aerial cull by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) in Guy Fawkes River National Park in October 2000. The terrified horses were driven up against an escarpment by a helicopter hovering just above the trees, then marksmen opened fire with semi-automatic rifles. More than 600 horses were killed, some left riddled with bullets to suffer a slow, agonising death. One mare was shot while giving birth. Tiny foals were left to starve because their mothers had been killed.
Greg Everingham, a local pastoralist who found the carcasses, was so sickened he took his photos of them to the media. The horrified outcry reverberated internationally. “I’ve never seen anything as awful as the sight of those horses,” Everingham said at the time. “Some of them would have taken hours, even days, to finally die.”
On a bleak winter afternoon, in a white-water haze, there is the kind of encroaching chill that comes just before snow. The mountains are laced with mist. I have travelled along kilometres of red-earth roads from Armidale to the isolated house on the 570-hectare property that is the New England Brumby Sanctuary. This is where some of the horses come when they have been brought out of the park. It has been a tough year because of the drought. Two little colts are in the yard, playful, curious, not able to be touched yet, but not frightened either. The New England sanctuary does not believe in slaughtering any horse.
Out on the property are stallions too old to be gelded. Anywhere else, they would be sent to the abattoir. Roger, the buckskin colt who bonded with Annie Dixon, is here because before Dixon died, she endowed money for him to live out his life in peace. “Roger is still quite a wild young fellow,” says Megan Hyde, adding that he has never befriended anyone else.
A wild horse’s first encounter with humans will leave an indelible impression. “You have got to be very careful,” Hyde says of the re-education process. “If it takes two weeks, so be it. If it takes three months, well, that is what it is. They will slowly get used to someone handling them. If you mess it up, they will end up fearful.” A frightened horse can be a dangerous horse.
Sitting by a blazing fire as a deep country night falls, Hyde tells the stories of some of the 300 horses who have passed through here on their way to new lives. “You have the satisfaction of when you are handling them and they turn around and become your friend,” says Hyde. “One minute, they hate you, and the next minute, their cheek is up against yours and they are saying, ‘Hello, how are you going?’ ”
In the wild, horses live in a close family group; a mob of a stallion with mares and foals. Lead by a dominant mare, the stallion will protect them. Once a colt is weaned, he will join a bachelor mob, and do what teenagers do – hoon around – until he is big and strong enough to steal a mare from a stallion and start his own mob. “They go around causing trouble, trying to steal mares and picking fights,” says Erica Jessup. “It gets a bit exciting down there sometimes.”
The mountain horses, which have developed powerful chests and hindquarters, have evolved and adapted to the wild; only the strongest survive. “A big dominant stallion might own 10 mares,” says the Guy Fawkes Heritage Horse Association’s Erica Jessup, “but that is very rare because they can’t graze enough country. The family mobs all own a certain piece of real estate. They very rarely cross into each others’ territories, but they do have some kind of rule that you have got to let other mobs through to get water, because they all drink out of the same dam.”
Even pursued by helicopter, horses will refuse to go into another mob’s territory. Fitted with a radio collar, a mare was found to have an average range of 1.2 kilometres. “They don’t burn energy unless they have to, because it is too hard to get it back,” says Jessup.
In the book Brumby, retired vet nurse Sue Mitchell tells a story of a panicked mob that was surrounded by bushfire. The old stallion stayed still and watched the fire. Then he “bit, kicked, and charged into them until they were in a tight mob. Then he drove them hard at full gallop into the fire … and out the other side. He knew when and where the fire was at its weakest.”
The Guy Fawkes Heritage Horse Association leases a 120-hectare property near Armidale, where horses taken from the park wait to be sold. The gum trees cast long shadows in the winter sun. Against a blue sky is a magnificent palomino stallion, nostrils quivering, ears pricked on red alert. He doesn’t know he is an iconic image, he just knows he has lost his mob. Around the yard are horses that arrived yesterday, munching hay. Four caramel fillies, their noses touching, are watchful. They are kept in the yard to get used to people, then let out onto the property. Newly captured, they have lost everything they have known, but they are calm. Around the property, the free-ranging horses are wary, but get a whole lot friendlier when hay is involved. They don’t yet know that human beings can hurt them.
“They don’t know hate,” says Carter. “They live in the wild within a firm social structure of law and order. “
Wild horses have been seen in the mountains around Guy Fawkes River since the 1890s. Legend has it they’re named after Sergeant James Brumby, who left his horses behind when he left NSW for Tasmania in 1804. Local landowners would shoot them to keep the numbers down, or catch them to use as children’s ponies or stock horses. With the invention of motorised transport, many were set free and left to fend for themselves, or escaped. When the NSW government bought the valley surrounding the Guy Fawkes River in 1972, the horses were left alone until NPWS decided to manage them in the 1990s.
The populations grow at roughly 17 per cent a year in parts of Kosciuszko, says the NPWS’s Tom Bagnat. It is estimated there are currently 6000 wild horses in Kosciuszko, and 1700 in Guy Fawkes River.
The horses in Guy Fawkes River have been genetically tested to prove that they are descendants of the cavalry horses used in the Australian Light Horse Brigade in World War I. In 2002, a heritage working party found that they had significant historical, military and cultural value; they are now a registered breed.
The more you delve into the brumby story, the more complex it becomes, especially given the fact there are no budgets for the most humane solutions. Instead, the brumbies are caught in a pincer movement, between conservationists wanting them gone, advocates fighting for their survival, and those who believe that they should be left alone, because their habitat will naturally control brumby numbers.
As I am driving and pondering the seemingly insoluble dilemma, I see handwritten letters on a piece of cardboard outside Bowraville, NSW. “Brumby Sanctuary”. Up a long track, I meet Barry Franklin, 74. He says that after the carnage of the 2000 cull, it “seemed the right thing to do” to give nine brumbies a home.
He calls them for their afternoon hay and they come thundering across the rolling green pasture, tails streaming in the wind, glorious. They are still wild, but they are safe and they are loved. “They are shy, they are always on guard,” he says. “They run away from noise and traffic.” He tells me about their distinct personalities and that he grows bananas and carrots for them.
“I just treat them as brumbies.” If only the million others could have such a happy ending.