Government set to exterminate brumbies

By Charmayne Allison

AFTER months of blood, sweat and tears keeping Barmah’s starving brumby population alive, a local preservation group is outraged the state government still plans to exterminate the embattled wild horses.

The government has just released a draft plan outlining strategies to improve the health of Barmah National Park and the Barmah Forest Ramsar Site, with the first stage aiming to cut wild horse numbers from 500 to 100 by 2023.

The long-term goal is total removal.

An announcement which has left the Barmah Brumby Preservation Group ‘‘absolutely devastated’’.

“We fought so hard for four months in 40-degree blazing heat to save these brumbies from starvation,” BBPG president Murray Willaton said.

“Parks Victoria stood by and allowed so many volunteers to do that and now we’re being told our work was all a waste of time because they’re just going to slaughter them anyway.

“It’s just wrong, it’s just un-Australian.”

The plan sets out a range of conservation measures to “increase the extent and cover of wetland vegetation, including Moira grass”.

These include improving current ecological water regimens, controlling the grazing and impacts of wild horses, pigs, deer and goats and managing invasive plants.

The government claimed current estimates showed more than 500 horses fed off and trampled the Barmah National Park to destructive levels and this “had been identified as a key cause in the environmental degradation” of the park.

But Murray said these facts and figures were flimsy at best.

And a distraction from the true cause of Barmah National Park’s decline.

“The numbers of brumbies they’re quoting are just a guess based on a grid they’ve developed from counting the most popular section of the forest for brumbies,” he said.

‘‘But anyone who knows bushland knows the brumbies would all be congregated in that one section.

“Initially they said 400 ... Then about a week ago they came out on the Parks Victoria website with a figure of 800. And now they’ve gone back to 500.

“Based on that, it’s clear they have no idea. But we know. We lost 150 horses during the drought and flooding and there are about 150 left.

“The brumby problem has been inflated to deceive the public into thinking a cull is necessary.”

However, Parks Victoria insisted their aerial thermal imaging surveys had detected a ‘‘much larger feral horse population’’ than reported by BBPG.

‘‘Estimates of feral horse population abundance were built using two different analytical methods commonly used for wildlife surveys, and provided results of 807 and 823,’’ a Parks Victoria spokesperson said.

‘‘Annual thermal imaging surveys will update these estimates, the next one occurring in April/May 2019. The number of horses to be removed each year will be determined based on an annual thermal imaging survey.’’

BBPG were among those who met up with Minister for Environment Lily D’Ambrosio, Parks Victoria chief executive Matthew Jackson and Parks Victoria chief conservation scientist Mark Norman on Friday to discuss the draft plan.

“They openly admitted the major damage to the forest came from the unseasonal environmental flooding. And they said other top issues were pest animals and invasive plants,” Murray said.

“In all these areas, they have said they have a problem but have not set any targets. The only target they’ve set is for the eradication of the horses. Why’s that? Because it’s the easiest to meet.”

Murray said the horses were being used as “propaganda victims” to cover up what’s really destroying the forest.

“The damage to the Moira grasslands comes from the flooding, not the horses,” he said.

“The flooding has seen the grasslands reduced from 13.5 per cent of the forest to just 4 per cent in 10 years. And if this flooding doesn’t stop, the Moira grasslands will be extinct in a decade.

“Do not believe the deception you are being told by Parks Victoria. If these horses are removed, it will not improve the situation of Barmah Forest.”

While Parks Victoria acknowledged addressing unseasonal flooding was a key priority, they insisted the ongoing presence of the horses in the Barmah forest was unsustainable.

‘‘The removal of feral horses is necessary to protect the fragile Barmah floodplains and encourage the regrowth of the critical Moira grass plains as a core part of the wetlands,’’ the spokesperson said.

BBPG had an urgent meeting on Sunday and decided it was “absolutely committed” to fighting the cull.

“We will not stand by and watch our heritage destroyed,” Murray said.

“We are more than willing to manage the remaining 150 horses and ensure they are maintained and do not exceed that number. There is no need to slaughter the whole lot of them.

“There’s a way of solving this and it’s called common sense. Stop mismanaging the park and focus on what’s actually causing all the problems, which is the unseasonal flooding.”