It’s here! The 2016 Draft Wild Horse Management Plan

The long-awaited Draft Wild Horse Management Plan produced by the NSW Parks & Wildlife Service was released in early May. The document is open for public comment until August 19,  and I urge any readers who have strong feelings about this issue to make a submission.

In brief, the Draft Plan advocates for a reduction of brumby numbers from an estimated 6,000 horses to 600, using a range of methods, and being undertaken over a period of twenty years. Once the population has stabilised at this sustainable number, other, non-lethal approaches will be implemented, including fertility control, and ongoing passive trapping. The Draft Plan has been met with disbelief by brumby advocates. The most highly-reported opinions have been of those outraged by the proposal, while those in support have not been as visible in the popular media. Further, any accurate reportage of the core elements of the Draft Plan is frequently lost amid the outcry.

One example of this, sent to me by a blog reader, is the July issue of the Australian Women’s Weekly. The magazine’s cover features the tagline “Our heritage – The fight to stop a brumby massacre”, and the article, titled “The battle to save Snowy’s Brumbies”, continues in much the same vein. Overall, I find it doubtful that the author of this piece had even read the Draft Plan when she wrote the article. It refers to environmentalists disparagingly as “greenies” [1], repeatedly gives the impression that fertility control has been completely discounted under the Draft Plan (it hasn’t), and reports the opinion of a brumby advocate who “looks overseas to Europe, where horses are being reintroduced to many wildlife areas to protect biodiversity and replenish natural spaces. Surely … the Snowy Mountains brumbies must have similar value.”[2] The repetition of this woolly thinking is incredibly frustrating, for, as discussed previously on this blog, there can be no comparison between habitats that have evolved alongside hooved mammals, and those (like Australia’s) which have not.

Elsewhere we see the reportage of a very select reading of the evidence – brumby advocate Madison Young, for example, is cited  as being “furious that shooting on sight [site] has been rated by the scientists’ group as more humane than transporting to rehoming.” [3] This appears to be a misreading of the 2015 report of the Humaneness Assessment Panel, which was assembled on behalf of the Independent Technical Reference Group, which makes the point that being shot on site is a more humane option (for the 82% of brumbies who do not find a home) than being trucked interstate to slaughterhouses. Of course it is wonderful for the 18% of brumbies that are transported out to rescue groups and rehomed. But, as has been discussed elsewhere, this is certainly not the fate of the majority of horses removed from the park.

Of course misinformation such as that seen in the Women’s Weekly story is rife in such debates. Consider another “fact”, appearing in the Daily Mail Australia‘s coverage of the Draft Management Plan: “The brumby arrived in Australia on the First Fleet. Only seven survived the harrowing journey.” [4] I honestly don’t even know where to start with everything that is incorrect within that statement! But when you consider the source cited is savethebrumby.org, you begin to see which voices are being heard most loudly in these debates.

This level of misinformation in the (pro-brumby) opinions that are so frequently cited by the media is disappointingly reminiscent of climate change deniers. It would be a shame if such strategies of obfuscation lead to a similar state of paralysed inactivity, while the world (and Kosciuszko National Park!) hurtles towards a state of inevitable destruction.

REFERENCES:

[1] Beverley Hadgraft, “The battle to save Snowy’s Brumbies,” Australian Women’s Weekly July 2016, p. 31.

[2] ibid, p. 34.

[3] ibid.

[4] Hannah Moore, “Almost 6,000 wild brumbies living in the Snowy Mountains to be killed under controversial NSW scheme to save Mount Kosciuszko National Park,” Daily Mail Australia, accessed 2 May 2016.

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Nature vs culture

When I was in Year 11 I was on the debating team, and the question set for our intra-school final was “Pants are better than skirts.”  Not wanting to stoop to a battle-of-the-sexes-themed debate, our side, for the negative, chose to approach the question literally, and examined it as an issue of fashion and comfort. The opposing team, on the other hand, decided to interpret the question as “men are better than women”. So the debate played out quite farcically, with both sides trying to rebut each other’s arguments, while fundamentally contesting completely different topics. How can anyone win* such a debate?

This blog has examined the issue of brumbies in Australia, and what is generally known as “the brumby debate”, several times, with my last post only the most recent example. The issue as it currently stands dates back to the Guy Fawkes River cull of 2000, and the situation, particularly in NSW, has been more or less at an impasse since that time. What is increasingly clear is that this is not a simple discussion about pest management, but one of cultural heritage, and, because of this, it is impossible to come to a clear resolution.

The two sides of the debate (to characterise them loosely as such – I am aware that people have differing motivations for their personal stance on the issue) are not two sides of the same coin, so to speak. What is essentially being debated is apples vs oranges. One approach views the clear environmental and ecological degradation wrought by the brumbies as a cut-and-dried case, to which the logical solution is their removal. And while those taking the opposing position offer some attempt at countering this viewpoint by debating exact numbers, methodologies, and impacts, the core of their argument is about something completely different – it is about heritage. Both these perspectives exist on completely different ideological footing, and, quite simply, it is impossible to win a debate that is being argued at cross purposes.

Simon Cubit has referred to this as a “tournament of value”,[1] where competing groups, committed to differing constructions of “truth”, vie to be acknowledged as the singular authority.  In the current context, we might look at this as a contest between nature (the ecological worth of wilderness) and culture (the brumby as heritage).

In the first instance, as Cubit and others argue, nature is a cultural construct,[2] rendering the environmental values ascribed to National Parks as, if not negated, then at least problematic. While the validation of purportedly natural landscapes is enshrined through processes such as UNESCO World Heritage listing, such landscapes are themselves constructed within cultural frameworks. [3] Ideas about the natural and the cultural cannot be considered in isolation from each other. Laurajane Smith draws our attention to the questionable use of the word “natural”, in particular when describing the Australian landscape. She points out that landscapes here perceived and interpreted as being “natural” are in fact the result of between 40,000-60,000 years of active management by Aboriginal people.[4]

On the other hand, if nature is a cultural construct, then heritage is certainly so. If we look at the dichotomy between natural and cultural heritage, we find that in many ways it is an artificially constructed one. As David Lowenthal argues, the two share many similarities in their treatment, and are frequently managed by the same instruments and institutions, for example the World Heritage Convention.[5] In light of this, we might consider that the culturally constructed nature of each of these concepts effectively cancels the other out.

Which is fine in theory, but in practice the debates relating to brumbies are predicated upon the assumption that there is a difference between nature and culture, with the former typically characterised as being largely untouched by humanity, and the latter generally understood to be a product of human design and intention. If we accept this, then certain other assumptions must necessarily follow. For example, both nature and culture must be positioned within the same value system, leading to the prioritising of one in favour of the other if the two are in opposition, which they frequently are – the current example being a case in point. Lowenthal highlights that when these two values are in conflict, it is the cultural that will most likely be defended, for “[h]owever deeply we may love nature, most of us identify more easily with human relics and rise more readily to their defence.”[6]

This is the crux of the matter. It explains why sound evidence demonstrating the destruction that brumbies create is not enough; why arguments relating to the intrinsic value of Australia’s alpine ecosystems are not enough; why a debate fought on facts alone is not enough. To quote ecologists Dale Nimmo and Kelly Miller, “simply appealing to institutionalised ecological knowledge will not resolve the debate by itself, because, in many ways, feral horse management is contingent upon ethical, political and cultural issues, not just scientific ones”. [7]

And what lies at the very heart of this issue? It is the regard that Australians have for the horse. And what lies at the heart of that? Well, that’s something I’m hoping that my research might go some way to answering.

 

*I don’t actually remember which side won. Which probably means it wasn’t mine!

REFERENCES:

[1] Simon Cubit, “Tournaments of Value: Horses, Wilderness, and the Tasmanian Central Plateau,” Environmental History 6 (2003): 396.

[2] Cubit, “Tournaments of Value”, 395; Smith, Uses of Heritage, 166-67; David Lowenthal, “Nature and Cultural Heritage,” International Journal of Heritage Studies 11 (2005): 81-92.

[3] Laurajane Smith, Uses of Heritage, (Oxon: Routledge, 2006),  166-67.

[4] Smith, Uses of Heritage, 168.

[5] Lowenthal, “Nature and Cultural Heritage,” 82.

[6] Lowenthal, “Nature and Cultural Heritage,” 86.

[7] Dale Nimmo and Kelly Miller, “Ecological and Human Dimensions of Management of Feral Horses in Australia: a review,” Wildlife Research 34 (2007): 413.

A million wild horses

Brumbies were the cover stars, and feature story, in the Jan/Feb issue of Australian Geographic (and many thanks to my cousin for tipping me off to that fact!). The piece begins with a good news story from an Aboriginal community in Central Australia, where training for the Certificate II in rural operations (in which horses play an integral role) has reignited interest in education, and offers hope of employment opportunities for community members. [1]

While the article does by and large present an even-handed account of the brumby debate, we still find that oft-repeated assertion that ‘horses are deeply embedded in [Australia’s] psyche’ [2], without any further exploration of why that might be (the obligatory mentions of The Silver Brumby and Banjo Paterson aside).

We do, however, learn that Australia’s wild/feral (pick your adjective of choice; the article acknowledges the dichotomy, but sticks with ‘wild’) horse population is now estimated to be ‘at least’ one million animals! [3] This is a significant increase from previous figures I’ve encountered, where numbers were postulated at around the 400,000 mark.[4] If those figures were correct when the research was published in 2007, then this population increase is nothing short of remarkable. Yet given that brumbies are able to increase their population by up to 20% in a good year, [5] and given that there have been no real bad years in the past decade, this figure is actually not surprising.

Central Australia apparently has a healthy brumby population, and several Aboriginal communities  are now looking at ways to exploit this resource, including mustering horses for sale. [6] The versatility of the brumby as a breed is emphasised in the article, and Erica Jessup, founder of the Guy Fawkes Heritage Horse Association, is quoted as saying that owning a brumby has ‘become very fashionable.'[7] But can you rehome a million of them?

There is a limit to how many horses Australians can adopt. Especially when brumbies are not the only horses seeking second chances. In a piece of blue-sky thinking produced by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation in 2001, it was argued that all racehorses exiting the racing industry could successfully be rehomed, and that the demand for off the track thoroughbreds ‘will most likely increase over time as people shift from using other breeds and instead use thoroughbreds.'[8] There are also standardbreds (trotters and pacers) looking for homes after racing.

A horse is not as easy to rehome as cat or dog (and there are  thousands of those looking for ‘forever’ homes across our nation’s pounds and animal shelters). A horse requires very specific, and expensive, care, including specialised feeding, dentistry, and hoof care. If something goes wrong, a horse needs attention from a qualified veterinarian. It requires a large amount of space to live comfortably. Finally, a horse’s owner or handler requires specialist skills to care for that animal correctly. It’s not as simple as feeding it twice a day and leaving it in your backyard while you’re at school or work. For this reason, well-meaning people looking to re-home brumbies or ex-racers who do not have the skills to care for these animals ultimately do them a grave disservice.

In the case of the brumby, if population control is required (and the Australian Geographic piece acknowledges that it does), then lethal control methods (ie shooting or otherwise euthanasing) are the most humane and effective solution. Today, the majority of brumbies caught by passive trapping (the current crowd-pleasing ‘control’ method of choice) are not rehomed, but end up being trucked hundreds or thousands of kilometres, and meeting an unpleasant fate at an abattoir.

To insist that horses not be shot in national parks, but then to do nothing when the approved method of managing brumby populations, implemented due to people’s squeamishness at the idea of wild horses being shot, means that these same horses must go through the trauma of being captured, wrested from the only homes they’ve known, and finally butchered at a knackery, ultimately reeks of animal cruelty.

REFERENCES:

[1] Burdon, Amanda. 2016. “Where the Wild Horses Are.” Australian Geographic January/February 2016: 76.

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] Nimmo, Dale Graeme, and Kelly K. Miller. 2007. “Ecological and human dimensions of management of feral horses in Australia: a review.” Wildlife Research 34: 409.

[5] Burdon, “Wild Horses,” 76.

[6] ibid

[7] Burdon, “Wild Horses,” 83

[8] Geelen, Renee. “The Internet Age of Misinformation.” Racing and Breeding (117): 54.  http://breedingracing.realviewdigital.com/?iid=102110#folio=54

Culling koalas

Last week I came across this article about a koala cull in Cape Otway, in Victoria. According to the article, almost 700 koalas were culled during 2013 and 2014, in a bid to deal with over-population in the region. ‘Interesting’, I thought. ‘I wonder what the public response will be?’

Well, in short, there has been very little public response in the intervening days. One of the only* online news article with comments appeared in the Geelong Advertiser. Of the 11 comments that were left there last week, only one person mentioned the ‘iconic’ status of the koalas. In fact there was no mention of any sort of cultural attachment to koalas in any of the news articles, until the International Fund for Animal Welfare commented on the issue, referring to the koala as ‘our national icon’ [1].

I find this particularly interesting, given the public outcry whenever the possibility of a brumby cull is mentioned, particularly in NSW and Victoria. These debates are constantly peppered with references to the brumby’s iconic status, and its important place in our national heritage. And yet the koala, an animal native to the east coast of Australia, is culled, despite being listed as vulnerable in NSW, the ACT and Queensland, and no one seems to care.

My issue is not that the cull happened. By all accounts it was necessary from a welfare point of view, with the koalas descended from a previously relocated population, and further relocation was deemed unfeasible [2]. Nor was it carried out in a brutal fashion. The animals were reportedly sedated before being euthanised [3], which is the same method in which the family pet would be put down by a vet, certainly not cruel.

The issue I have is that the over-population and subsequent culling of koalas in a small region doesn’t raise a tenth of the ire as the proposed culling of brumbies, which are an introduced species. Yet brumbies are in a very similar situation to the Otway koalas, suffering from over-population in the Snowy Mountains region, and, as reported last spring, apparently starving. Perhaps this is because conservationists and brumby advocates continue to dispute the actual number of brumbies? Well, according to The Australian Koala Foundation, the same goes for the Cape Otway koalas [4]. So maybe the lack of outcry is because the koalas were euthanised, rather than shot? Well, in 2008 there was no complaint made at the shooting and complete eradication of rabbits in Sydney’s Centennial Park, another ‘secret’ operation.

What emerges here is that the discourse around brumby management is different to that of any other animal, whether native or feral. The constant reference to the brumby’s iconic status, and it’s national heritage, have seemingly elevated it from the realm of ‘animal’, and conferred upon it an almost untouchable symbolic status. What remains to be seen is how the issue will play out, and what the ecological cost will be.

*The Australian also did a piece on this topic, with comments, however this cannot be accessed by everyone, as it pops up as ‘subscriber only content’. Suffice to say debate in the Comments field was typified by anti-‘Greenie’ sentiment. Of the 32 comments posted as of today, no mention was made of national heritage or iconic status.

REFERENCES:

[1] ‘Koala Cull Highlights a Bigger Problem’, International Fund for Animal Welfare web page (Australia) 5 March 2015, accessed 11 March 2015 http://www.ifaw.org/australia/news/koala-cull-highlights-bigger-problem

[2] ‘Hundreds of starving Cape Otway Koalas killed in ‘secret culls’,’ The Age website, 4 March 2015, accessed 11 march 2015 http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/hundreds-of-starving-cape-otway-koalas-killed-in-secret-culls-20150304-13un49.html

[3] ‘Starving koalas secretly culled at Cape Otway, ‘overpopulation issues’ blamed for ill health,’ ABC website, 4 March 2015, accessed 4 March 2015 http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-03-04/starving-koalas-secretly-culled-at-cape-otway/6278768

[4] ‘Almost 700 Victorian koalas killed in secret cull,’ ABC News website, 4 March 2015, accessed 11 March 2015 http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-03-04/almost-700-victorian-koalas-killed-in-secret-cull/6280158

Beware the cannibal horses of Kosciuszko!

Yesterday a story appeared on academic news site The Conversation about cannibal brumbies. Well, that was the attention-grabbing headline, though only the opening paragraphs were about how the feral horses of Dead Horse Gap are so starved that they are eating partially digested food from the intestinal tracts of their fallen comrades.* The rest of the article went on to cover now-familiar terrain around the increasing population of wild horses in the High Country, and the environmental threats they pose, though the authors – both ecologists based at ANU – took a slightly different approach by emphasising that culling would prevent future generations of horses from having to suffer and starve.

The authors clearly support the re-introduction of aerial culling, with Don Driscoll stating that “Aerial culling is a win-win for animal ethics and for the environment.” [1] The figures produced by the authors, calculated using a ten-year projection and based on current population numbers, present a stark future for wild horses without aerial culling.

Figures developed by Don Driscoll and Sam Banks, charting future horse populations projected over a 10-year period

Figures developed by Don Driscoll and Sam Banks, charting future horse populations projected over a 10-year period when implementing various management strategies

This alternative perspective, which, while supporting culling, also clearly prioritises the welfare of the horses, generated some interesting discussion in the comments section. Given the academic nature and readership of the site, there were only a few comments around the significance of the brumbies to Australia’s national character that usually appear time and time again in such discussions, while other issues raised included what would drive a horse to cannibalism, whether or not what these horses were doing could actually be classified as cannibalism, and what constitutes ‘native’ flora and fauna.

It will be interesting to see if culling from an animal welfare perspective, rather than an environmental management one, will make the prospect more acceptable to brumby advocates.

Meanwhile, I anticipate a cannibal horse movie, in the same vein as Black Sheep, coming to a cinema screen soon!

* At this point a four-minute video was embedded into the article, whereby the authors recount for the camera, and via background photographs, their ‘grim discovery’ in the snow. I’m not sure if it was deliberately ironic, but the clip’s title and credits are in red ‘Chiller’ font, and the suspenseful violin soundtrack were both quite amusing

REFERENCES:

[1] Don Driscoll, comment made in reply to ‘Massey Farms’ https://theconversation.com/the-grim-story-of-the-snowy-mountains-cannibal-horses-31691#comment_479445