How dear the horse is to the course of human civilisation is evident from its place in the arts, literature and poetry. In Greece, from the burials of Bronze Age horses (1200 BC) to the representation of horses in the Parthenon frieze, all the manifestations of the artistic expression of the ancient Athenians testify to the admiration and high regard they had for horses and equestrian art. From Homer and Achilles’ talking horses to Xenophon’s treatise on horsemanship and from the winged Pegasus to Bucephalus, our admiration for horses as a nation is undeniable as horses hold a prominent place and are held in high esteem in all facets of life. Objects and works of art from antiquity to the present day bear witness to the multiple roles that horses play in our lives: in war, in sporting competitions, in mythology, in religion. The mythical ‘horses of Diomedes’, the mounted Leagros of Euphronius (510-500 BC), the Kabbaphatic ‘horses of Achilles’, the Trojan Horse, the Heneuchus of Delphi and, in modern art, the horses of G. Derpapas and S. Sorogas. Also the horsemen of our saints, St. George and St. Demetrius and the small horses of Skyros.
The symbolism of the horse is similarly represented from ancient Greek lyrical poetry to the present day. In the so-called Akritika (medieval poems), Grivas and Black are only two of the many horses that feature prominently, while their companionship with warriors is often mentioned in the ‘kleftika’ songs and epics of folklore.
Considering the above and our long-standing relationship with the animal, the question arises of how can this entirely sympathetic animal evoke so much hatred and malice in Australia by calling for its gruesome and brutal killing? We are referring to the issue of wild horses known as Brumbies and the periodic decisions by those in charge for culling (shooting them from helicopters) since they are considered ‘pests’ and must be exterminated for the good of the region’s ecosystem. Since when has this magnificent animal been ‘validated’ as a nature killer and environmental destroyer and ‘condemned’ to a brutal death and – more importantly – by whom?
Why the brumbies are being culled
Starting from the basics, the majority of brumbies live in the alpine zone of Australia, between three states: New South Wales, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). Australia’s alpine environment covers only 1% of the continent. The prevailing perception to date by various ecologists – such as David Watson, an ecologist at Charles Sturt University in Australia – is that wild horses, which are an invasive species in Australia, are rapidly reproducing and causing widespread damage to the region’s ecosystem. “Australia’s alpine zone is home to a number of threatened and vulnerable species. There are no native ungulate mammals in Australia, so brumbies cause a lot of damage to fragile plants, which have not evolved in a way that would allow them to survive against them. Also, the population growth involves significant overgrazing” as reported in the journal Nature a few years ago.
So according to this notion, and based on the inaccurate counting of the brumbies’ population (which was done before the devastating fires and floods of 2019-20 that killed over 3 million animals), the government decided that because of their large numbers they should be gunned down by helicopter fire.
New South Wales and Kosciuszko National Park
In August 2023 Penny Sharpe, NSW Minister for the Environment, announced a proposal to amend the Wild Horse Management Plan in Kosciuszko National Park to allow the aerial killing of wild horses.
She and the media reported that there is an urgent need for action as endangered endemic species are at risk of extinction. The government said the most recent official count estimate was between 14,501 and 23,535 wild horses throughout the park. According to the management plan agreed under the previous government, the number of horses had to be reduced to 3,000 and 32% of the park by 2027 in order to limit the damage caused by horses to sensitive alpine ecosystems. The national park already traps, shoots and relocates horses, but the government claims that the current management methods used are not effective and that more drastic measures need to be taken before the situation gets out of control.
But this is not the case. The animal welfare organisations for the protection of the brumbies who visit the park frequently have been voicing for years that the figures given in the media do not represent reality. The numbers are by the thousands less than what is published, which is why state governments have been repeatedly asked to do a new count, pleas that have been ignored systematically for years.
Brumbies conservation organisations such as the Australian Brumby Alliance (ABA) have expressed their dismay at Minister Sharpe’s decision to amend the Wild Horse Management Plan and overturn the NSW ban on aerial killing of wild horses that was introduced after the Guy Fawkes Park massacre in 2000, where over 600 wild horses were killed in three days. “Aerial killing was banned because evidence from the cull in Guy Fawkes National Park and other locations showed that it was a cruel and inaccurate way of managing Brumby numbers,” said Jill Pickering, ABA president. “As a nation that loves animals, it is a very dark day when we lower our standards on animal cruelty issues.”
Sadly, as a result of this decision 270 more brumbies were killed in October 2023 in an aerial massacre of an alleged 15,000-25,000 population. Shooting from a helicopter at horses galloping fearfully in no way provides accuracy for a painless and quick death. The shooters fire 7 – 15 rounds at each galloping horse which are then left to die a slow and agonizing death and the orphaned foals are left to die of starvation.
If, as the locals believe, the numbers are only a small percentage of what is being said, then there will be no need for the inhumane aerial carnage. Despite the abundant evidence however, the Minister of Environment still to this day refuses to have a re-count of the brumbies at Kosciuszko National Park.
Victoria and Barmah National Park
Victoria takes a very tough stance on wild horses, having unveiled a plan to completely “remove” all wild horses from the most endangered habitats. It should be noted that in Victoria, there is no legislation to protect wild Brumbies within the 3 key areas, namely the Barmah National Park and the Eastern Alps of the Victoria Alpine National Park.
Liberal MP for Northern Victoria Wendy Lovell has supported the Brumbies for decades. She spoke exclusively with us about the issue where she mentioned that she has submitted numerous petitions to the Victorian Parliament on brumbies issues and has never received a response. Specifically:
On 6 August 2020 an ePetition was tabled in the Upper House of the Victorian Parliament by Wendy Lovell MP calling for the introduction of a “Brumby Heritage Act for Victoria”. To date there has been no response.
Last May, the MP asked the Andrews Labor Government about its plan to secretly shoot brumbies in Barmah National Park, urging the Minister responsible to intervene to stop the cull. Specifically, she referred to a recent Weekly Times article revealing the government’s plans in detail to begin secretly shooting brumbies, rather than trapping the horses as promised so that suitable sites could be found to foster them. No response was ever given.
On 28 November 2023 another petition was presented to the Victorian Parliament with 1087 signatures. The petition asked for new evidence from Dr David Berman to be considered, evidence that showed there was no ecological impact from wild horses along 99% of the Bogong High Plains and Eastern Alps of Victoria. The petition also asked the Legislative Council to consider immediately abandoning the lethal management of wild horses, commission a new census of the horse population in the Alps National Park, recognise the value of their cultural heritage, conduct research into the benefits that horses bring to the Alps National Park and develop new management plans. Again, no response was given.
Result: The Weekly Times article and MP Lovell were proven right. In September Parks Victoria resumed the cull of brumbies in Barmah National Park. The horses’ bodies had been left where they were inhumanely shot. No public warning was given of the execution operation and the park was left largely open which was careless and dangerous. Parks Victoria did not provide answers to questions about the cull, why the bodies were not removed from the woods, the number of horses left or about any risks to the public.
According to this Barmah Strategic Action Plan and the Wild Horse Action Plan 2021 hundreds of brumbies are either shot or sent to slaughter for no reason. Parks Victoria said a key element of these action plans was maximising rehoming opportunities through supporting organisations. But according to MP Bev Mc Arthur this never happened. In her own petition to Victorian Parliament on November 28, 2023, it is stated that Parks Victoria was to consult with the Barmah Brumby Preservation Group Feeding milk to a baby brumby about rehoming brumbies, but the organisation’s president Julie Pridmore said Parks Victoria did not meet up with them, despite their many pleas.
In 2018, Parks Victoria, in partnership with other water agencies, flooded Barmah National Park, with the environmental results being devastating for the area’s wild horses. The flood destroyed access to all forage for the wild horses forcing them to settle in a small area on higher ground, which subsequently caused minor environmental damage to the area. Brumby rescue teams volunteered to trap and remove the brumbies that had been caught in this isolated area as they were starving due to lack of food. Parks Victoria declined this offer. The brumby supporters then offered to feed (at their own expense) the isolated and starving brumbies but Parks Victoria again rejected this offer and threatened $7,000 fines on the spot for anyone who fed the wild horses. Parks Victoria then came out publicly the following year and used this environmental damage to “justify” its stance on the complete eradication of the brumbies population from Barmah National Park. This fact and others are cited in the petition filed by Heritage Brumby Advocates Australia (HBAA) on 20 November 2019 (submission 219 ) in the Victorian Parliament.
As MP Lovell told us, the petitions that have been submitted to the Victorian Parliament count over 30,000 signatures. But MP Bev McArthur has also been fighting for the same cause for decades without any results “Supporters of the many petitions that have been made to the Government recognise the inherent cruelty of the current execution campaigns and are asking for financial support for their rehoming of the brumbies. Not only does rehoming provide humane alternatives to lethal control, but it is also proving more effective than current aerial and ground culling campaigns involving moving targets that cannot be humanely killed. So brumbies die slowly, foals are eliminated or left to starve, and carcasses are left to rot or be eaten by wild dogs, cats and foxes.”
Problems with the Brumbies population census Parks used a Brumbies population census as evidence to support the mass cull. The 2019 survey was conducted by the Australian Alps National Parks, which receives government funding through the Department of Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development. The research team claims that the Brumby population increased from 9,187 to 25,318 in five years (2014-2019). However, the total number of wild horses they counted was 1,736. These were 1,298 horses counted in the northern area of Kosciuszko National Park, 76 horses in Talbingo and 362 horses in the Victorian Alps. In other words, the socalled ‘independent’ study, which was paid for and managed by elected offices, includes an additional 23,582 wild horses. This figure has since been rounded up to 25,000 horses and has been reported by news agencies, park representatives and politicians.
Additionally, the Animal Justice Party NSW identified further issues with the Brumby population survey:
– The report acknowledges that researchers removed a 2014 survey area because too few horses were found, suggesting that the report was aimed at finding more horses in the area rather than conducting an accurate study.
– The report also acknowledges that portions of the survey are in areas where horses are known to be abundant. The researchers then extrapolated this data to cover areas where population numbers are much lower, suggesting a false increase in the wild horse population resulting from the analysis. Also, separate models were used for the 2014 and 2019 data sets, and different covariates were used, making the data not comparable.
The brumby rescuers – Mountain Brumby Sanctuary
In the early days of the 2020 pandemic, when the government announced that Brumbies were to be culled again, a small group of women got together and went to the alpine regions of Victoria to help in the effort to stop the mass cull. Meeting other passionate people that weekend, they all wanted to do something to help the horses. As a result, the Mountain Brumby Sanctuary was founded. It is located in the Broadford area on the private grounds of a Melbourne doctor who provided the land for the rehabilitation of the brumbies and their care. The instigator of this project is Gabi, originally from Germany and accountant by profession. During the lockdowns, Gabi, along with two friends, raised endless miles of fences and made superhuman efforts to build facilities to welcome the brumbies that they have been rescuing since then . ”
At first we said we would rescue 3-4 brumbies but the needs for rescues were too many and eventually we have 64 horses in the facility today,” Gabi tells us with a smile.
Like many other supporters of the brumbies, she has spent all her savings on this project. She has no personal life, can’t go on holiday and she is there from morning to night seven days a week. Many times she spends the night at the Spartan facility, especially on rainy days like those of last week where the flooding is dangerous “If we had money we could buy a caravan so we could have a place to change and stay dry when it rains,” she tells us. The shelter also needs a 4×4 vehicle as the volunteers use their own cars which are not fit for the terrain.
Gabi has visited the national parks many times and recognizes many of the horses that roam freely there. The last time she was in Kosciuszko in November, helicopters were flying overhead to shoot at the animals, and she stepped in as a shield between them so the helicopter would be forced to stop shooting. “I was waving my arms so they could see me from the helicopter and stop shooting,” she says, “but I thought I was going to die that day, but for a good cause! ‘ I was determined to stop the helicopter and we succeeded.”
She believes that there are around a thousand horses left throughout.
Kosciuszko and around 30-40 horses in Barmah National Park, a fact that MP Lovell also relayed from her own local sources.
“You have to drive 30km she tells us to see the first horse when there are supposed to be 3,000 horses running free according to the government. And also the grass was so high, it was up to my waist. If there were as many horses as they say the grass would be low, which is also dangerous for fires of course like the one a few years ago that burned too many brumbies. After the recent aerial raids I found 19 dead horses following a horrible smell, all mares and foals. And you can tell by their expressions that they were in agony.
And I don’t understand how the RSPCA has colluded in this action. Australia is the only country in the world that has this policy of horse culling. In other countries not only do they not cull them but they deliberately let the horses graze freely on the grasslands to keep the grass down.”
She also told us about the needs and expenses of the sanctuary. “Each horse needs about $35-$50 a week in hay and feed. Luckily we were donated $1500 recently and we bought hay but the needs are ongoing so if anyone would like to help, they can come and visit us and of course meet the horses and us. From a few dollars a week, any help is appreciated and all of our proceeds go 100% to the care and feeding of the horses as we all are volunteers here.”
The Next Steps
Although there is significant demand for the protection and conservation of wild Brumbies, including from Indigenous Australians, the state governments of New South Wales, Victoria and Canberra continue to carry out brutal and cruel executions of these animals. This is fuelled by the rhetoric of extremist environmentalists, despite undocumented evidence that Brumbies are harming the environment and the wild indigenous fauna with which they have evolved symbiotically for almost two centuries.
Humane, non-lethal methods for population control have proven successful in horse populations that are freely circulating abroad, and new methodologies and technologies continue to be developed and improved over time. Fertility control should be urgently trialled in Australia, as has been done in New Zealand and America, in conjunction with rehabilitation and rehoming. It is also important that any resettlement program is accompanied by adequate financial support. At present, brumbies’ friends groups unfairly bear the burden of addressing this issue, as they all rely on donations and their own funds to do so and struggle to meet the costs associated with transport, feeding, gelding and vet bills.
Nothing has changed
Despite the hundreds of thousands of petition signatures submitted to successive governments, despite the cries of animal welfare activists for unreliable evidence and the undisputed proof to the contrary, despite calls to those responsible for dialogue and review of practices, to date nothing has changed regarding the general protection of brumbies in Australia and Victoria.
Our research for this report has uncovered a great many documents submitted to the Victorian and Australian Parliaments, with unwavering evidence that both the population numbers and the reported MBS volunteer Brendan, Horse whisperer Dave, MBS founder Gabi and ‘Brumby Belle’ Amanda. All have been fighting for the rescue of brumbies for years, dedicating their own time, money and resources. damage to the ecosystem caused by horses are anachronistic notions that in no way reflect today’s reality.
Brumby advocates are calling for a review of the data and an end to inhumane executions of an animal that has co-existed harmoniously with humanity over the centuries.
On 16th January 2024, we asked the Victorian Minister for the Environment and Australian-Greek, Mr Steve Dimopoulos to comment on all of the above, as Parks Victoria falls under the Department of Environment and also as the Minister responsible for administering the Parks Victoria Act 2018. As of the day of publication, we have had no communication from the Minister’s office.
How you can help
In Victoria, you can sign the Change Org petition, which is important to gather a large number of supporters to report to Parliament when the bill is introduced. Although this petition cannot be tabled, it will certainly be invaluable as an indication of support for Brumby protection legislation. This petition is addressed to the State Premiers and to Victoria’s Greek-Australian Minister of the Environment, Steve Dimopoulos. The petition has so far garnered 202,000 votes and is aiming to raise 300,000.