I am not sure what it is about horses that seizes us. It could be their size—an assertion of presence distinct from other animals that have been drawn into domesticity.
I’ve been distracted by them in passing; there is a racecourse not far from where I live and an equestrian centre across the highway. I still smile at the memory of a chocolate-coloured horse who would peer over our back fence when we first moved to the outer-west fringe of Melbourne. It gave such an impression of an overgrown, inquisitive dog.
Horses remind me of ballet dancers: immense power perched on nothing but toes. I think about the fact that Edgar Degas, who is known for capturing ballerinas in pastel and oil, had made numerous studies of horses as well.
The thing about horses and ballet dancers is that their delicacy of movement belies the intense force with which their feet touch the ground. Horses can weigh as much as 450 kilograms, almost half a ton on hard hooves. This is havoc for the peatlands, fens and riparian zones of the Australian Alps—and disastrous for plants and animals that live in such environments.
The science does not budge on the interrelated impacts of letting horses range in the wild. Feral horses (sometimes called brumbies) displace native animals by grazing in competition with them, wrecking their burrows or reducing their cover from predators. They also degrade peat, trample moss beds, erode banks and increase siltation in alpine streams, and disperse weeds.
The damage becomes cumulative because ecosystem recovery takes so long, running from decades to centuries. This is without accounting for introduced predators such as foxes and cats, as well as mega-fires induced by a changing climate—which brushed up this summer against high country.
The Threatened Species Recovery Hub (an expert group drawn from several universities funded under the National Environmental Science Program) identified feral herbivores as part of the cascade of disaster after the disaster: rabbits, deer and horses, ‘still present in the post-fire environment can substantially restrict regeneration of palatable native plant species, and this herbivory can profoundly influence development of the plant community, with consequences for the dependent animal community’.
That horses are on this continent at all is of course due to British colonisation and settlement. It is the sting in the claim that feral horses present heritage value. There is no way to interpret this that could be neutral.
The Victorian Alps are culturally significant to Aboriginal people. There are physical and spiritual connections to country, associated with over 600 registered sites and objects. These ancient sites have been disturbed by feral horses and further exposed to the elements.
Heritage-keeping becomes a matter of keeping intact in this light—a principle that overlaps with environmental values. I don’t know how horses can be made compatible with this. And I don’t know what it means for advocates to be so impassioned about an animal that imperils the landscape on which they insist it must roam.
I read that this has to do with colonial-settler myth-making. I accept that modern Australian history and culture could not be told in full without accounts about white pioneers. Horses certainly feature (directly and implicitly) in stories of frontier masculinity and scientific exploration.
But the price of elevating these stories over others seems steep. In keeping horses loose in the wilderness, the story of environmental destruction that runs parallel with colonisation continues.
I can’t help but think about the superficiality of their presence on this land. Australia and Antarctica are the only continents with no known native species of ungulates. Not even-toed artiodactyls (sheep, goats, camels, pigs, cows, deer) nor odd-toed perissodactyls such as horses. To put it this way: theirs was an uninterrupted absence of a few million years until 1788.
Counting geological time can be a bit like scribbling calculations on the back of a receipt, but here is the thing: Australia separated from the ancient Gondwana supercontinent around 99 million years ago, including incremental splits from New Zealand and Antarctica from 50 to 70 million years ago. It collided (tectonically) with Asia around 33 million years ago. It spent something like 20 million years in relative isolation.
It is time that accounts for our unique fauna and flora. Monotremes, of which the platypus and the echidna are the only extant species, had appeared in the Cretaceous period even before Australia broke from Gondwana. Marsupials appeared in the Eocene at some point in the continental drift from New Zealand and Antarctica. Our frog and turtle species are generally older than those in the northern hemisphere by a few million years.
What I’m trying to say is that even a glancing consideration of context says a lot. An animal can leave us awestruck—a horse, a fox, a deer, even a rabbit—and it could still be out of place by epochs. We could love these animals and they would be no less destructive. And does not love include such understanding, seeing in context, and having to take things hard but honestly?
Native fauna have been here a long time, evolving under specific conditions into the forms we recognise today. Every Australian animal arrives to our attention from a vast distance. Or perhaps it is we who come so late.
Consider the journey that the mountain pygymy-possum has made, for instance, having become exclusively adapted to the rocky alpine and sub-alpine zones of the Bogong High Plains, Mt Buller and Mt Kosciuzko. It is the only animal in Australia known to spend up to seven months under snow in hibernation, which is something of a feat for its size.
It weighs 30 to 82 grams—the heft of three AA batteries—and is only 11 centimetres long (25 centimetres including the prehensile tail); small enough to cup in one hand. It is critically endangered, with fewer than 2000 individuals estimated to be in the wild.
More than 25,000 horses run wild in the alpine region that straddles New South Wales and Victoria. This population has more than doubled in the past five years; an average of more than three feral horses per square kilometre based on a survey area of 7,400 square kilometres. They are probably something of a spectacle, galloping together over a pristine landscape. Tourism and recreation operators use them as a drawcard.
But this is an area of typically small creatures: the alpine she-oak skink and Guthega skink (both of which are endangered); the broad-toothed rat and smoky mouse; the alpine tree frog and Dendy’s toadlet; the alpine spiny crayfish; the striped centipede, chameleon grasshopper and mountain katydid; the stocky galaxias.
A whole array of endemic species across taxa pitted against the single one. I wonder again at the distinction that is made for horses.
There are of course businesses potentially on the line when major culls of feral horses are called. I don’t know why those protective of brumbies aren’t more honest about this rather than pressing for heritage values that have found no ground in federal court.
Moreover, horses are only among a number of feral animals such as deer and goats that require removal from national and state parks. There are no lobbies to save these animals —at least none that generate as much political heat as horses. It is hard to work out the discrepancy in types of destruction that are unacceptable.
No one should be eager to kill animals. It seems worth saying out loud that culling is not usually the first resort. Sometimes it is the outcome of initial containment strategies more palatable to the public. That is the hard truth.
Protective measures are time-sensitive by default, and research has shown that fencing, fertility control, trapping and rehoming are severely limited in effect. This means that culling remains part of a suite of responses. When it does come to it, organisations such as Parks Victoria (which is legally bound to undertake these operations) draw input from experts on ways to do it ethically and humanely, including from the RSPCA.
That careful deliberations are undertaken by people on the basis of evidence-based priorities—this can be more safely assumed than the character of those who accept or propose that horses have to die.
I think again of that chocolate-coloured horse over the back fence, and remember that I had ridden another horse once—a sedate trail experience while on school camp as a teacher. I was struck the whole time by its solid, steady grace.
For all the qualities of a horse, it remains as new to this land as I am.
And it is for all late arrivals to tread lightly.