Protecting Wilderness and National Parks

Feral Horses and the effects of fire and drought in Guy Fawkes National Park October 2019

October, 2019 is nineteen years since an aerial horse cull humanely shot 606 horses over three days in Guy Fawkes River National Park. The precursor conditions to this cull were drought, extensive bushfires, and ineffective mustering which resulted in the deaths of at least four horses and the reported suffering of many others.

The Colong Foundation believed that the current combination of one of the most severe droughts on record, and the large Bees Nest wildfire, had perhaps precipitated another crisis where many horses would seek remnant feed on unburnt river flats beside some of the last available water sources.

The Colong Foundation decided to inspect Guy Fawkes wilderness during its closure due to fire from 22 to 24 October, 2019, to report on the condition of a known horse population in the area, and the extent of damage to the national park from horse grazing.

What was observed

We observed 212 emaciated horses, 28 dead horses and 3 dying horses. Nearly all the dead horses had suffered lingering deaths, demonstrated by the deep scuff marks made by their hooves while the animals were prostrate and struggling in a flurry of agony. The three dying horses were in great distress, one too exhausted to move, one wedged in between rocks and the other scuffing the earth as above.

The effects of severe drought had caused blackberry bushes, some rainforest bushes and large River Oaks to die. The Sara River and all Guy Fawkes tributary creeks had dried up, but Guy Fawkes River still flowed sluggishly and supported frogs and platypuses, as well as a population of starving horses.

The effects of drought upon a large population of feral horses in the Guy Fawkes wilderness is a signal lesson on apparently humane but ineffective management outlined in the 2006 horse plan.

Many large river flat areas and the footslopes leading to them were effectively bare of grass or other ground vegetation, apart from some remnant native grass roots that the horses had picked at. Weeds, including toxic lantana, were either heavily browsed or dead. Any bush remotely palatable had been eaten to a browse line to which a horse could reach while craning its neck.

Large areas of sheet soil erosion were observed on the lower Guy Fawkes and Sara rivers. Large gully erosion was observed on Kittys Creek along with sheet erosion. The state of wilderness in the lower Guy Fawkes valley can only be described as ruinous and in need of complete destocking.

Effective and humane aerial shooting is imperative

The result of listing horses as ‘local heritage’, while not applying effective, humane control methods, continues to cause great suffering to the emaciated and starving feral horse population in Guy Fawkes National Park. The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service has been bullied and frustrated by the horse lobby, and directed by politicians into ineffective horse control measures that permit ecological harm. These impacts are in accordance with the November 2018 determination by an independent scientific panel on threatened species, that listed feral horse populations as a ‘key threatening process’ pushing species at risk closer to extinction.

Whatever the reason or motive for current management, the suffering of starving horses and destruction of this national park through over grazing must stop as soon as possible. New England district farmers have destocked their land due to the drought. The park’s managers have been prevented from equivalent responsible horse management by an emotive policy that prevents humane culling through aerial shooting, which is the only effective means of destocking wilderness.

If the NSW Government does not act and the drought continues, then our inaction will be responsible for delivering long, agonizing deaths to hundreds of blameless feral horses in the Guy Fawkes wilderness. We must act with compassion and humanity, and cull starving horses as soon as possible to put an end to their agony and help save this national park’s delicate ecology.

Both the Australian Veterinarian Association and the RSPCA provide information on feral horse control methods developed by the NSW Department of Primary Industries, with support from the Australian Government – these are available on the PestSmart website. Methods include RSPCA protocols for aerial shooting, which PestSmart states ‘can be a humane method of destroying feral horses when it is carried out by experienced and skilled shooters and pilots; the animal can be clearly seen and is within range; the correct firearm, ammunition and shot placement is used; and wounded animals are promptly located and killed.’

Background to October 2000 horse cull in Guy Fawkes National Park

The 100,000 hectare Guy Fawkes wilderness surrounding the Guy Fawkes River, and its major tributaries, the Aberfoyle and Sara Rivers, forms a large gorge network north from Ebor village at the western edge of the Dorrigo Plateau.

Thirty-one threatened plants and two dozen threatened animals live in this wilderness, including the Koala (Phascolarctus cinereus); Yellow-bellied Glider (Petaurus australis); Squirrel Glider (Petaurus norfolcensis); Spotted-tail Quoll (Dasyurus maculatus); Brushtail Rock Wallaby (Petrogale penicillata); Rufous Bettong (Aepyprymnus rufescens); and Parma Wallaby (Macropus parma). The Eastern Freshwater Cod, an endangered fish occurs only in Guy Fawkes River, the longest wild river system on the NSW north coast.

From 1992 until the cull in 2000, only 156 horses were captured and removed from the park by local horsemen and NPWS staff using mustering and trapping techniques, and several horses were killed and injured in the process (English 2000).

It was alleged that local landholders had been illegally running horses in the park and using it as a breeding ground for brumbies (Daily Telegraph, 1/11/00). Feral horse mustering efforts failed as hundreds of horses remained in the park. As wildfires and drought had stripped the fragile gorge soil of cover, the horses were starving and so the National Parks and Wildlife Service planned an immediate aerial cull. A total of 606 horses were shot that would have otherwise further wrecked the environment and suffered cruel lingering deaths by starvation.

The cull was vindicated by Dr English of Sydney University who found it effective, efficient and humane. Shooting horses from helicopter is far less stressful and dangerous than trapping and removal, yet the highly critical media attention that followed this cull triggered a ban on aerial shooting by then Environment Minister, Bob Debus.

The subsequent 2006 Guy Fawkes horse management plan re-adopted the failed mustering and trapping techniques. Since 2006, the plan’s objectives have not been achieved – the natural values of Guy Fawkes River National Park are not being conserved because horses have not been removed in sufficient numbers.

In the Guy Fawkes gorge country there are no effective means to chase horses across the rugged wilderness into yards, then halter the captured horses and lead them unwillingly behind stock horses up steep ridges to a second set of yards. The horses may then be trucked long distances for slaughter in an abattoir or rehomed. Even if this process could be done for horses within wilderness areas, and it is impracticable to do it, it will continue to cause a proportion of horses to be injured and killed, and all horses removed in this manner will be very distressed by what has been done to them. It would also be an extremely dangerous task for the people engaged in such a remote area muster. Horse management based on mustering in wilderness is unworkable and ultimately inhumane.

As the Colong Foundation predicted, the Guy Fawkes’ management plan to trap and remove horses has been ineffective. Numbers are not reducing faster than the horses breed – there are now perhaps two thousand horses in the park.

NSW environment groups have for twenty years maintained that the government must restore humane and effective aerial culling of feral horses in national parks to protect natural heritage values. The current extreme Guy Fawkes’ situation vindicates this policy and the NPWS actions in 2000 to aerially cull the horses using RSPCA approved protocols.