That was a line out of a poem I wrote as a seven year old child. I received all sorts of accolades for the poem from my then 2nd grade teacher, only to run directly into the ire of Sister Cletus sometime later in the day for mentioning (Winnie) The Pooh as a great piece of literary work. Because she only heard “The Pooh” she believed I was being rude and I got the cane (and splinters in my face as a result) for that.
It was a formative experience about how people hear what they want to hear. And see what they want to see.
At the risk of being murdered by a lynch mob of angry Australians, who from today are unable to climb Uluru and who have the attitude that the fun police have even sadly cruelled betting on the Melbourne Cup because some animal fanatics took footage of what actually happens to racehorses, even if they win millions for their owners, I am going to talk about those very same brumbies I wrote about as a seven year old, suburban and white privileged child.
And of course, as a child, whose imagination could not be lit with the idea of running free through the bush, unchecked and unregulated by adults and their rules? For a white girl child in Australia, dominated as it was by conservative and mostly brutal white centered policies, the power of horses and the illusion of freedom always had allure.
I know now that I wasn’t the only one that felt this way.
In the absence of any other culture to surround myself with it was perhaps the mythology of the brumby that created my deepest ties with this continent and in particular the Snowy Mountains region. I devoured the “Silver Brumby” books and fell in love with the landscape as soon as I first saw it. I have had one foot in this country, which by the way is the land of the Ngarigo people, since I was fifteen.
It was of no surprise to me then, that the first image of the Sydney 2000 Olympics beamed around the world was of a single horseman, riding across the arena accompanied to the score from the eponymous movie of the poem “The Man From Snowy River” by Banjo Patterson. Such is the power of that poetic imagery it influenced me to write about them, so many years ago.
And perhaps that is why the debate about the alpine brumbies and their management is such an emotional and difficult one for most Australians to fully grasp and all aspects of rationality leave the discussion. After testing the grounds on social media, (and receiving immense amounts of hate and incorrect assumptions about my knowledge of the Alps and horses) I have come to the conclusion that the reason that so many people are so defensive about brumby management is, because they believe it is their right to protect their “iconic brumby” (an oft used term in this conversation) as they have come to represent their “possession” of a thinly disguised colonial and privileged identity that is a banner for their Australian-ness.
If anyone gets in the way of that self-image, which is encouraged by the political parties who wish to continue their domination of this continental prize of mineral resources called Australia, woe betide them. If you don’t believe that the “iconic brumby” should have a home amongst an extremely fragile alpine environment thus displacing rare and actual indigenous animals you are nothing but a traitor. You become un-Australian for exposing the sacred cow, or in this case, sacred horse, of Australian mythology.
But before anyone comes after me with a shotgun, which after discussion with some local farmers who wish to remain anonymous (for good reason) have said they have used in relation to the brumbies, or feral horses, that come onto their land, lets look at some actual history and facts of the matter.
The Occupation of Australia by the Naval Forces of Britain (and yes Samantha thats what they were really called) began when Captain Arthur Phillip, who was to establish a military prison and a strategic military outpost colonised the Sydney basin in 1788. He brought the first horses on this continent with him. That was a mere 231 years ago. Compared to the millenia that the Gadical, Wangal and Cammeraygal had been living in the Sydney basin its hardly a second in time. In fact based on the latest bit of science that shows Aboriginal people have lived on this continent for 120,000 years, thats only 0.19% of the heritage that Aboriginal people have in relationship to this land.
The definition of “feral” according to the dictionary is “in a wild state, especially after escape from captivity or domestication: a feral cat.” Brumbies, therefore, are by definition feral horses. They are the descendants of British domesticated and imported horses that were released or escaped their owners. Since the occupation and settlement of the Snowy Monaro region occurred roughly between the 1820’s and 1830’s and famously the Pendergast brothers, the sons of an ex-convict brought cattle and horses to the area, the alpine brumbies have no more than 200 years, or 0.16%, worth of heritage in the alpine regions compared to the Ngarigo people and the surrounding Wiradjuri, Gurnai Gurnai, Yuin and Yorta Yorta people.
Last year the NSW government enacted legislation driven by National Party Deputy Premiere John Barilaro and the pro-brumby lobby, to bring the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Act 2018 No 24 into law. This effectively has created a law that protects a feral species by granting it “heritage” status.
Now as I have discussed, the actual percentage of “heritage” that brumbies have in the alps is approximately only 0.16% compared to Aboriginal people on this continent so this seems like a spurious claim to protect an animal that was released or abandoned by white settlers less than 200 years ago.
Furthermore, historically the brumbies were annually managed by the original settlers because they would round them up and pick some of them for work horses. It was expedient and kept the numbers of brumbies in the alps in control. Brumby stallions that raided the farmers horses for mares were often summarily shot. “Brumby runs” were still common into the 1980’s in the Snowy Mountains and many horses were often killed in the process.
The genesis of the mythology of “The Man From Snowy River” came from these “Brumby runs” with many farming families scrambling to claim their ancestor was “The Man”. For the people who work in tourism in the Snowy Mountains thats a great selling point for the legions of visitors looking to identify with the great Australian myth.
So we have come to a point in history where, due to brumbies being allowed to breed unchecked in the alpine areas of Australia the numbers have now grown exponentially. Driving along the main thoroughfare of the Snowy Mountains Highway from Long Plain to just outside Yarrangobilly Caves will not fail to reveal at least several mobs of horses, and many, many more if you take a casual drive on the Long Plains Road. With a phone camera you can easily capture at least some brumbies, even at close range. Down in the southern part of the the alps on the banks of the Snowy River, there are more brumbies. These ones are the ones in my photo.
There is no doubt that the debate about brumby management has become even more fierce due to the plethora of photographic imagery of brumbies that has been created, circulated and legitimised by recent photographic awards. These show “iconic brumbies” in the snow, which after all few people associate with Australia, these images harkening to an European sentimentality, a nod of the cap at the old, cold country. They reinforce the notion of a supplanted culture, one where horses once reigned supreme. Those who had horses in Britain were considered the wealthy and entitled.
But what of the alpine brumbies themselves? Abandoned or escaped there is no doubt they are causing significant damage to the areas of the Alps in which they live, mainly Kosciuszko National Park. The horses in the southern part of the park are for the most part in extremely poor condition, interbred and riddled with diseases. Anyone that knows horses, knows botflies and knows what leaving animals untreated for botfly larvae infestation does to the interior of a horses stomach. A slow and torturous death.
Yet it appears that many of the pro-brumby lobby, don’t actually care for the health and well being of the animals. They are frequently run down by trucks in the north of KNP and truck traffic will increase with the building of Snowy Hydro 2.0. In the southern part of KNP are often emaciated from poor conditions, which as the drought takes hold further across the country, will deepen the suffering they experience. All of which seems of little consequence to the lobby.
This year The Guardian posted images of horses that died of thirst in Central Australia and images of starving brumbies at the southern part of KNP. But the pro-brumby lobby are still vociferous in their claims that the animal has heritage status in the alps. One going so far as to say ” The brumbies are a part of the white man’s heritage and that ain’t going to change and it is a fact. These horses have been there for almost 200 years like it or not and have their own heritage as a result, they are not horses that have been conveniently released recently.” and to further state that the southern part of KNP “which is some of the toughest country in the region for anything that has the misfortune to live there, it is easy to portray the struggle of any species to survive there. This is not the case in the rest of the park.”
Regardless of the mounting scientific evidence of the impact of feral horses on Kosciuszko National Park, nor the fact that there is an implied cruelty to leave the horses to continue to breed unchecked, the solution that the NSW government has come up with in terms of management is to advertise that the brumbies will be trapped and then given freely to the disposal of anyone that wishes to collect them. So after the stress of hunting down and trapping the horses, they most probably will wind up on trucks, without food or water for days to be trucked to the abattoirs. There they will be treated like the racehorses who have been bred but have finished their careers with no-one to look after them. They will not be picked up by the myriads of pro-brumby supporters rushing to the defence of ‘their’ “iconic brumby”.
This kind of management plan is beyond inhumane. Anyone that knows anything about the reality of keeping horses knows its expensive and time consuming. If million dollar racehorses don’t have a life after racing what chance do interbred brumbies? Rounding up alpine brumbies and giving them away to anyone that will claim them is tantamount to creating a live export industry from them.
Yet the government prefers this option because the pro-brumby lobby are so loud. In fact Deputy Premiere John Barilaro said that his community “took me to an election and our position was endorsed at a general election”. Barilaro added ‘that Inner Sydney proponents of repealing the bill “live in some fantasy where they believe their view and their democracy trumps the democracy of local people that actually live and breathe the mountains, their generation and their culture”.
I am part of the community that Mr Barilaro speaks of and I don’t believe that he has the hallmarks of a man from Snowy River type writ large on his person. In fact I would be surprised if he had even sat on a horse in his life. That the health and future treatment of the brumbies in the alps is a matter of political power is distinctly disturbing. One pro-brumby lobbyist even advocating for everyone to vote for the Liberal National Party. There is no doubt that many of the pro-brumby lobby make a living out of idealising the animals.
The true owners of this alpine region, the Ngarigo people have had an affectionate working association with the horses since they have arrived. They do not want creatures that live on their land treated inhumanely. Neither do I.
I also know that the alpine regions are fragile, precious and under threat. That the local wombats have caught mange from feral foxes and that feral pigs do incredible damage to the environment. That record amounts of native animals were killed by cars entering Kosciuszko National Park over this last winter snow season and that western NSW has been turned into a desert by the mismanagement of water leases. And that thoroughbred race horses with nowhere to go end up brutalised until they are killed for dogmeat.
So whats the solution?
A balance between humanity and the environment is necessary. There is no magic anti fertility drug currently available that can be employed to humanely cut down the numbers of the brumbies, and their hard hooves were never meant for the alpine terrain. Before Kosciuszko National Park was established in 1967, the NSW Government removed licensed cattle grazing from the park area in 1958 because they recognised the detrimental affect grazing was having on the environment.
I don’t believe aerial culling or trapping and trucking the horses to the doggers are viable or humane options of controlling the brumby numbers. And poisoning them would be simply barbaric. I also don’t advocate wholesale slaughter of the animals. Perhaps the best solution is to look once more at the history of past management and put qualified marksmen on the ground that could destroy the stallions. Without them the mares would simply not be able to reproduce. While this is a slow option it would be infinitely less stressful on the horses.
Now before this blog becomes the ammunition for which the pro-brumby lobby (ironically enough) takes out its guns and shoots me, I would like to leave this final statement about why a cull of brumbies must happen.
The world as we know it is on the brink, it is teetering on the edge of an irreversible drop in mammalian numbers and potential extinction of especially rare and unique species. If one species has complete dominance over a landscape biodiversity collapses and we end up with non-sustainable monocultures of plants and animals. These monocultures move us towards entropy and environmental degradation. When native koalas or kangaroos have been culled in the past due to excessive numbers no-one has come to their defence. Yet no one group has been as strident as the pro-brumby lobby.
Its again ironic that the loudest and most dominant voices in the feral horse debate are the very ones that want the symbol of their “iconic alpine brumby” to remain in the fragile alpine regions. It would appear that they would rather entirely displace other native wildlife with “their” brumby, not because they want a horse, are willing to look after it or even care about its well being. But because they must have dominion over something.
And somehow they must control that alpine brumby running wild and free…
Sources are quoted in the hyperlinks.