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BRUMBIES: The dark side of their reality

By Sophie Baldwin

The brumby has been given a national identity – from the works of poets such as Banjo Paterson to movies, TV shows and documentaries. The wild bush mobs of lore are right there if you want to take a short drive into the country to see them. But SOPHIE BALDWIN has found the chaos of red tape; drought and flood watering have conspired to place local brumbies in a life-and-death situation.

THERE is a tragedy taking place right on our doorstep.

Very few see it: the government doesn’t seem to want to see it and volunteers are fighting a losing battle to stop it – and keep Barmah National Park’s brumbies alive.

The brumbies are starving to death as Parks Victoria adheres to the National Parks Act 1975 which considers feral horses exotic animals – but these animals have been embraced in Australian culture and mythology for more than 200 years.

The unusual combination of drought conditions and a flooded forest from thousands of megalitres of environmental water spilling out of the Barmah choke daily, has left the brumbies with a reduced grazing area and a desolate and bare park in which to graze.

The brumbies, in particular mares with foals at foot, have been hit the hardest and can be likened to walking skeletons as they stagger around the park, desperately searching for food.

Local residents have resorted to hand feeding in an effort to keep them alive, as Parks Victoria appears to have washed its hands of the problem, implementing a management plan of waiting until the health of the brumbies is so poor they shoot them on sight, leaving their bodies to rot where they fall.

Barmah resident Kaye Moor said at least 26 brumbies and foals have died since the start of November while six foals have been rescued and sent to Hoofs2010 – a charity working to save and promote Australian bush horses.

Murray Willaton from the Barmah Preservation Group said regardless of the contentious issue of whether or not the brumbies should be in the park, the horses are suffering.

Badly.

“The underlying issue is the cruelty to the brumbies and Parks Victoria’s failure to act,” Mr Willaton said.

It is illegal to carry a firearm in a National Park so the only people who can put down a brumby with a firearm are Parks Victoria officers.

“We have been worried for months and last month the horses started to collapse and volunteers have been feeding them ever since. We have called Parks at least 20 times for assistance and they failed to attend on 12 occasions,” he said.

Volunteers have also had trouble contracting Parks Victoria on their 24 hour number numerous times after finding brumbies in need of assistance.

They recently found a horse that needed to be put down.

“We called Parks at 7am and were told to call back when the office opened at 8.30am and on top of that, there is a minimum 1.5 hour response – and we had to sit and wait with that poor animal while it suffered.

“These animals are dying a slow and very cruel death.”

Vet Judith Mulholland has been responding to calls to help the brumbies in the forest for the past 10 years – and recent events and the health of the horses have concerned her greatly.

“In the case of an injured animal that requires veterinary attention and likely to need euthanasia, it would be my responsibility and duty to attend and administer treatment as soon as possible. If that animal is able to move away, even slowly, administering injections would be impossible – the only option left to the gravely injured animal is to suffer until Parks attend (this may be the next day) or break the law and shoot it myself.”

Ms Mulholland said a Parks officer should be on call 24/7 regardless the animal, or authority must be passed on to the attending vet.

“The buck stops at the top, National Parks and Government – you have laid the problem at my feet help me fix it humanely,” she said.

Parks officers have been actively checking the volunteers are adhering to the no feeding in the Park rule.

When the Riverine Herald visited two Parks officers called to check on the volunteers. Ironically neither was armed so you would presume they would have to call in additional resources if they came across a suffering brumby, wait for them to arrive and then put the animal down.

Mark Norman, chief conservation scientist, Parks Victoria, said he understood people’s concerns however regulations prevent the feeding of, or interference with, animals in National Parks.

“Parks Victoria is responding to incidences of malnourished feral horses and receiving advice and assistance from RSPCA Victoria regarding the welfare of the animals,” Mr Norman said.

KAYE AND GERRY MOOR

Gerry Moor has grown up in the Barmah forest.

The sound of brumbies thundering through the bush became some of his earliest memories – they are both horrified with the way these animals are being treated.

The pensioners are spending $90 a week on diesel alone, feeding these horses on private property adjoining the park.

Kaye has sat with many of them, waiting for them to be euthanised.

They are also buying $80 bags of milk replacer to nourish starving foals at their own expense.

“We are just concerned about the horses and doing what should be done to keep them alive. We are not into the political side of things – it’s the horses we are worried about, they are just skin and bone and it’s terrible.” Kaye said.

Kaye said Gerry lays awake at night thinking and worrying about the horses particularly the foals.

They recently found a severely dehydrated foal.

“We brought it back to life, the mum had obviously died somewhere and we don’t know if the foal is going to make it – it’s just cruel.

“Parks think things can’t be done to help them but they can be and they should be done now.”

Kaye said the volunteers will continue to feed the brumbies on private property adjoining the park.

RENEE AND SCOTT NEYBAUER

Renee and Scott Neybauer have been regularly travelling from Kilmore to help other volunteers.

They have been camping in the forest for 17 years and have an affinity with the brumbies.

“Initially the only way I could get my girls to go camping was to tell them there were horses in the park and we know we are not the only people who visit because of the brumbies,” Scott said.

“The brumbies are splendid and majestic creatures and it is wonderful to see them in their own unique families, untouched, doing what they do – I think there are much bigger environmental concerns than the brumbies in the park.

“What about the environmental water, pigs, deers and other animals? The brumbies are such a small population but they are an easy target,” Renee said.

Scott said if these horses were found in someone’s backyard the owners would be charged.

“This seems to be intentional cruelty. If they were in someone’s backyard they would be thrown in jail and rightfully so,” Scott said.

The couple are very active in horse circles and they have been highlighting the plight of the brumbies.

“We have been talking to horse groups and social media and we have had people donating hay and cash to help out.

“On Melbourne Cup day we came up with a trailer load of donated hay and we are back again today with another, the government have really dropped the ball on this issue and it’s a disgrace.” Renee said.

PARKS VICTORIA

Chief conservation scientist from Parks Victoria Mark Norman said the current extreme dry conditions are impacting native and introduced species within the park and they are responding to incidences – receiving advice and assistance from RSPCA Victoria regarding the welfare of the animals.

He said regulations prevent the feeding of, or interference with, animals in national parks.

“Feeding animals can maintain populations at unsustainable levels, adding pressure to the environment, and can create a dependence on non-natural foods,” he added.

“If familiarised with people, animals can stop foraging on their own and become dependent on human intervention.

“Regular feeding of animals can also attract predators, while domestic animal feed can introduce invasive weeds to a national park,” Mr Norman said.

But he did report Parks has increased patrols in the park and after hour staffing.

“A panel of local veterinarians has been retained to assist in the response to reports of malnourished feral horses.

“In some instances, to prevent further suffering, feral horses have been euthanased. This has been undertaken in a controlled manner and under strict protocols, following consultation with a veterinarian.

“Parks Victoria has been consulting with the community and relevant organisations to develop an approach to managing horse numbers and impacts in Barmah National Park and Barmah Forest Ramsar site over the past two years.”

OPEN LETTER TO PARKS VICTORIA

You have laid the problem at my feet. Then you have tied my hands behind my back.

As one of the closest veterinarians to the Barmah Forest it has been my duty to respond to many calls over the past 10 years involving brumbies - the wild horses of the Barmah Forest. Recently, it has been a very concerning series of events involving animal suffering that have forced me to write this letter. As non-indigenous feral animals Brumbies are unwanted intruders to a National Park such as Barmah. The arguments for and against them are irrelevant. In the case of an injured animal that require s veterinary attention and is likely to need euthanasia, it would be my responsibility and duty to attend and administer treatment as soon as possible.

If an animal is able to move away, even slowly administering injections would be impossible and euthanasia would be by rifle. In a National Park only a parks officer may discharge a firearm legally. NO EXCEPTIONS. Not even the police will assist. Therefore the remaining options are to leave the animal that is gravely injured to suffer until a parks officer will attend(this may be the next day)or break the law and shoot it myself.

A recent example on Saturday this spring I was called by a concerned local residents and Barmah brumby advocates to attend a mare severely tangled in fencing wire. Waiting at the rendezvous point I contacted National Parks and police. National Parks phone services direct you to the RSPCA or a veterinarian. The police did the same and the officer firmly stated ‘there are no exceptions to the firearms rule’. Therefore RSPCA are not able to administer treatment or euthanasia in this situation as their hands are also tied. A veterinarian is required.

The most qualified person and the only one who is able to make the final decision and/or administer treatment or euthanasia is a veterinarian and we are unable to do so. A National Parks officer is unable to be contacted, the animal must suffer longer unless a solution can be found.

The outcome on the day was when we finally reached the injured horse it had been detangled by locals and then tried to run away several hundred meters. It was tripped by more lose wire and went down again. This time too weak to get up I was able to sedate it and assess the leg injury. The strangulation of the limb halted blood flow through the foot and the extensor tendons were cut. This animal would not be able to survive and therefore it was euthanised with no stress. There were at least 10 people witnessing this tragedy, including tourists.

There have been several similar events this spring.

The solution to the problem is:

A National Parks officer should be on call in every region 24/7 for all animal welfare issues related to all animals within the park, whether they be feral or indigenous.

If a National Park officer is unable to attend or cannot be contacted the attending veterinarian should be able to euthanise an injured animal by rifle or supervise the process by a licensed shooter if necessary.

The buck stops at the top – National Parks and Government.

You have laid the problem at my feet.

Help me fix it.

Dr Judith L Mulholland BSc, BVMS, Dip. WCF

RESCUERS NEED YOUR HELP

The Barmah Brumby Preservation Group (BBPG) are trying to save what is left of the Barmah Brumbies, but they need your help.

The group have set up a Go Fund Me page and will use all funds raised to purchase hay to help support, and keep the remaining brumbies alive.

The group is hoping to raise $25,000.

For more information or to help visit

www.gofundme.com/save-the-barmah-brumbies