WILD HORSES BARMAH NATIONAL PARK

Author- Joanne Canning, BSc Equine Sports Science, HND Equine Sports Coaching, BHSII

 

Letter to the ministers - These are points I would like to address

“Research on feral horses is surprisingly lacking in Australia and would benefit from national leadership and direction. It should: accurately map the distribution and abundance of feral horses; quantify feral horse impact in relation to density and control; evaluate the humaneness and suitability of control techniques; document community and stakeholder perceptions on feral horse impact and management; and assess whether feral horse impacts threaten native species or communities.” -

Reference workshop outcomes in the document -

https://pestsmart.org.au/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2020/06/FeralHorse.pdf

 

1.       “There is a scarcity of published peer reviewed research on feral horses in Australia. The relationship between feral horse density and damage remains to be quantified in any area, which impedes effective management. Much of the evidence on environmental impacts and population ecology is anecdotal” - reference above document. –

It is abundantly clear that research on wild horses is surprisingly lacking in Australia as stated above and that the “evidence” is anecdotal and non-scientific.  I have explained this further below.

 

2.   POPULATION

The population in this area has remained fairly constant from 2006 to 2017

“100 – 150 horses occupy the Barmah State Park” (cited by Dawson et al. 2006)

 

2010 - “Mr McCormack said that in the aerial survey four mobs of horses were observed, the largest being a mob of 15. He said the number of horses in the park was greater than the 38 counted so far. ''It's really hard to quantify it without some proper verification, but we think it's probably in the order of around 150,'' he said.”

 

2017 - Barmah National Park east of Echuca on the Murray River has a currently estimated population of over 200 animals.

Reference- page 4

https://www.parks.vic.gov.au/-/media/project/pv/main/parks/documents/visitor-guides-and-publications/alpine-national-park/alpine-np-feral-horse-sap-2018-21.pdf?la=en&hash=CA8AA077676F2089DF663551527F010B607A6F3D

 

Using a figure of 200 for 2017 - increasing by 17% per year (expected population increases would be between 6-17%) but allowing for the deaths of horses in the 2018/2019 disaster, the total population would be a MAXIMUM OF 220 horses now!  It is extremely unlikely that the population increases would be more than 17%! Parks own papers give the figures of 6-17%. This would be scientifically accepted increases.

 It would therefore be fair to all parties to conduct a new count using drones with video evidence to do a full head count of the current population BEFORE going ahead with any removals! If 100 horses are removed immediately and there are a maximum of 200 there, this would be unnecessary and unfair. Especially as it’s quite obvious that with the situations with horses needing rehoming from NSW Parks and other Victoria Parks, the limited rehoming availability will mean horses will be slaughtered!

It is not a difficult task to use drones to locate and video approx 200 horses. As you are of course well aware already of most likely locations of them. This would provide visible proof to all parties involved.

Visible video proof of the FLIR counts done in 2017-2019 has never been provided and determining the differences in animal species with Infra Red in tree covered areas would be EXTREMELY DIFFICULT - especially from a higher altitude of a helicopter rather than drones. I have one of these cameras myself so have personal experience.

 

Also reference the above document  - “As is the case with determining the size of the population of most free-ranging animals over large landscapes, it is impossible to directly count the entire population by searching the entire area. Instead, a survey (sampling) approach must be used. Results of the survey are then analysed to estimate the size of the population in the landscape. To ensure that we have the most accurate and precise estimate, this data is analysed by independent expert using an internationally recognised method known as Distance Analysis.”

 

As I stated above, as there would only be approx 220 horses  in the Barmah Park, this is not the case and it would be perfectly possible to do a head count of the whole population! There are local companies able to do this using drone and video technology. Also the software used to do the surveys in 2014 and 2019 that you mentioned above delivered ludicrous population numbers,  delivering calculations of an annual increase in population for the wild horses of up to 42.5% in one area of the Parks! This is MORE THAN DOUBLE THE ACCEPTED SCIENTIFIC MAXIMUM POPULATION INCREASES FOF WILD HORSES!  I have written to St Andrews about this. How can this be accurate and precise if delivering results that are scientifically impossible!!!

 

Sadly therefore the counts done in June 2017, 2018 and 2019 - (numbers of actual spotted horses not mentioned and no video footage showing proof provided!) have then been entered into the above software to again give population increases that would be ludicrous! To get from approx 200 horses in 2017 to 540 in 2019 would be an annual population increase of OVER 60% per annum!!!!!! Beyond ludicrous!

 

The count done in September 2019 spotting 282 horses would be a bit more likely but as I said, I am not convinced that the FLIR thermal imaging done from a helicopter and in forest areas would deliver clear enough images to determine between species- particularly between deer and horses. If you can provide the footage to confirm clear visual confirmation that it definitely was horses then it still delivers a result of 282 anyway. From the diagram in the document above it is unlikely there would have been any horses not spotted. But even an increase in population to this figure, when accounting for the horses that died in the 2018/19 disaster, would be an unlikely figure. 540 though would be beyond ludicrous!

 

“While Parks Victoria state that that the 280 count under-representsthe numbers, but will not acknowledge the possibility that 540 over-represents. As well as false readings due to the location bias, ie concentrating only on higher populated areas. the Barmah Brumby Hay Angels (BBHA) have questioned whether deer could be mixed up in the counts.”

 

3.    ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES

 

 Again from the document-

https://www.pestsmart.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/FeralHorse.pdf

 

The assumption that an introduced animal is causing damage may not be correct. Feral horses in some places may in fact be beneficial. They may be reducing bushfire fuel loads by removing grass. They may be exerting no negative impact at all and simply providing pleasure for those that love seeing wild horses living free in the bush. Control in this case would be a waste of time and money.”

Yes a complete waste of money and unnecessary loss of life. Please see my further comments below-

Reference-

https://www.parks.vic.gov.au/-/media/project/pv/main/parks/documents/management-plans/barmah-national-park-and-barmah-forest-ramsar-site-strategic-action-plan-2020-2023.pdf?la=en&hash=E130D0B2C8E9C9E22B349EC9148F9AA99ED09BAA

 

“Removal of feral horses will enable both natural Moira grass regeneration to occur and manual habitat restoration programs to be successful, by reducing horse density and protecting core areas.”

This statement is based on the use of exclusion plots -

 

The exclusion plots

The exclusion plots photographed to show the differences in vegetation in different areas, fenced out ALL but the very small wild animals. Therefore excluding wild pigs, goats, sheep and deer! These photographs have then been used as so called evidence of damage done only by horses! This is not a fair assessment then, of course. To ascertain ONLY damage done by horses, these exclusion plots should have obviously ONLY excluded horses while still allowing other animals access. The information below is not to throw blame on to other wild animals but is taken from the Parks own paper as above, discussing the damage done by these other wild animals but purported to be done by horses- See below-

 

WILD PIGS

Riparian and wetland habitats are attractive to feral pigs where they can cause serious habitat degradation by rooting in the soil in search of food, and can also prey on the eggs and chicks of nesting water birds in wetlands.”

Feral pigs disperse seeds of weed species, and in the process of rooting up the ground they trample vegetation and extensively disturb the soil. In addition, regular wallowing and digging of dust-beds can impact on terrestrial and aquatic systems through erosion, siltation and

increased turbidity.”

 

“Feral pigs are also a threat to Moira grass, uprooting and trampling Moira grass and disturbing the soil (Figure 25 a and b). The photograph taken on 15 February 2018 (Figure 25a), shows damage by pigs along the edge of the grazing exclosure at Little Rushy Swamp after flood recession.

Most feral pig activity within the area has been observed within and around treeless wetland environments in the west, where vegetation and soils are most susceptible to disturbance (Ecology Australia 2017). Monitoring of feral pig activity therefore focused on these areas and in 2016-17 feral pig disturbance was recorded at all eight monitoring plots and across 85 per cent of transects, a considerable increase in the frequency of disturbance recorded in previous years (42.5% in 2016; 22% in 2015) (Ecology Australia 2017).”

 

DEER

“ Deer degrade ecosystem quality through grazing, browsing and trampling of vegetation, ringbarking trees, as well as dispersing weed

seeds and enriching nutrient levels. They also cause soil disturbance in

creeks, wetlands and swamps, where they wallow in mud.”

 

WILD GOATS AND SHEEP

“Feral goats have been observed in Barmah Forest and can modify habitat through grazing, browsing and trampling of vegetation, dispersing weed seeds, and disturbing the soil, creating openings for weed invasion and enriching nutrient levels. Feral goats can also impact native fauna, primarily through the alteration of habitat structure and composition, as well as competition with native herbivores and omnivores. Feral sheep are also present within Barmah with a breeding population having persisted since 2010. Like other feral grazers these pests are likely to impact on a range of native species and are of concern due to their potential impact on Ramsar values, especially the Moira grass plains, given its palatability.”

 

Feral goats, sheep and deer

“Control of feral goats and sheep has been undertaken opportunistically rather than through programs specifically targeting these species. Shooting of free-ranging animals has occurred when feral pig control is in progress or by park staff at other times. Feral deer including Sambar and Fallow have been targeted using professional shooters in planned control programs. In 2017-18, 34 deer, seven sheep, and one goat were destroyed.”

 

34 deer, 7 sheep and one goat!! This only goes to prove that horses are just an easier target than most of the other animals in the park that are doing the most damage. And there are very many of those other animals and a very small amount that have been culled. Even if you remove all the horses, nothing would change, because the damage is mostly being done by other animals! And human intervention of course!

If you, as you have stated in previous documents, want to manage the situation in a fair and humane way, do a full “head count” of the horses in the Barmah Park. Then if there are approx 220 horses, gradual removals by rehoming opportunities and population control using darting contraception should deliver enough control over the population if any is actually needed. If you truly want to ascertain any damage truly done by horses then put up exclusion fencing that ONLY excludes horses! Then you will see the damage is mostly being done by the other animals in the park!