The brumby has long been a symbol of Australia’s high country, but as our wild horse population grows, it has become a political problem with one bloody solution.
By Konrad MarshallJuly 11, 2020
It’s just after 8am on the Nunniong Plains in Victoria’s high country when professional horse-breaker Lewis Benedetti, atop a big grey thoroughbred named Stones, trots out of the bush leading a raggedy black foal on a rope.
We’re on an open plain of snow grass and tussock, five hours east of Melbourne, and the wind is unforgivingly cold. A frigid stream cuts through the field, gurgling under a layer of ice as thick as toast.
The little black horse – a wild or feral horse, Equus caballus, also known as a brumby – tugs at the rope Benedetti tossed around his neck mere moments ago. It’s a skill the 30-year-old horseman honed in nearby Buchan as a child from when he was nine, lassoing his letterbox after school.
The captured foal whinnies, nostrils huffing mountain air. And he bucks clumsily, jumping at everything and nothing, like an obstinate puppy. He’s furrier than you might imagine. Fluffy almost, with a white rectangle on his forehead.
“For retraining, this is the size you want, brother!” Benedetti hollers from the saddle. He comes to state forest areas like this in his spare time to go “brumby running” – chasing wild horses to domesticate and rehome. “When they’re too old, mate, they’re too hard to train. But he’s just right.”
We’ve been up for hours, eyeing mobs of mares in the darkness, and three black stallions at dawn. Benedetti found this colt in a glade between snow gums. “Caught him like you would not believe. Easy as piss,” he says, grinning. “Let’s get him back to camp, eh.”
Around the fire now, Benedetti pours his coffee, scalding hot from the billy, and the morning sun melts away the last of the crunchy overnight frost. “Why do I do this?” he asks, nonplussed. “The adrenalin is unreal. To catch a wild horse – pretty good feeling, eh? You’ve gotta get set, be fit, have your horse fit, know what you’re doing. Then come back for a feed at the fire. What better life is there than that?”
As I stoke the coals and our eggs sizzle in popping bacon fat, it’s hard to argue. But there is, however, another more urgent reason Benedetti is here. He’s catching brumbies today not just for recreation but because of what might happen this winter.
“That little pony will make someone really happy,” says Benedetti, who might be able to sell this pretty brumby for $500, or just give it away. “But see, there’s only two options for him now. He can come home with me, or he can stay here and get shot.”
This is not an exaggeration. A brumby cull is coming. It’s long overdue.
Brumbies to be removed from Kosciuszko despite internal opposition
Thousands of wild horses are trampling the alpine wilderness of Victoria and NSW – wreaking havoc on heritage-listed ecosystems, pugging up fragile water catchment areas and threatening the habitats of native species. They’ve been doing so for more than a century, of course, but the fight to be rid of these horses – which are, technically, “non-native ungulate pests” – has intensified in recent years.
In May 2018, NSW deputy premier John Barilaro introduced his “brumby bill” (The Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Bill), which formally recognised the historical significance of the brumbies, protecting them from slaughter. (It became law the following month.)
Later that year, a brumby advocacy group launched a Federal Court action to prevent a trapping and culling program by Parks Victoria. Those two actions produced a two-year stay of execution – an amnesty in which the animals multiplied. Current estimates put their population at 25,000 in the alps of both states – alarming, given the vast swaths of national park that burnt last summer.
“Demography is destiny. Numbers are everything. And it’s going to get to the stage where – without culling – the problem is unsolvable,” says retired CSIRO botanist Dick Williams. The situation demands a dramatic correction, he says, quoting a maxim often attributed to British economist John Maynard Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
Parks Victoria decided enough was enough. Having finally won its case in May, an immediate plan was announced to cull hundreds of horses using expert ground snipers with thermal imaging and noise suppressors.
It provoked an emotional outcry, and Andrew Cox of Australia’s Invasive Species Council understands why. “Nobody wants to shoot horses,” Cox says. “People plead, ‘There must be a better way’ because it’s horrible, yes. But I’m sorry, there is no better way.”
A problem with no easy solution, the brumby conundrum raises complicated questions of environmental science and agricultural management, while skirting delicate facets of animal welfare and our own colonial mythology.
Naturally, the issue has become yet another skirmish in the culture wars, pitting greenie against grazier, science against lore, rationalism against ideology. There are two irreconcilable and intractable sides to explore in this debate, but let’s start with the horsemen in the high country.
In mid-May I head to the sleepy hamlet of Omeo, an hour north-west of Nunniong, to visit Jim Flannagan, 87, whose family has been farming the region since 1856. We shelter from a biting rain in his lounge room, near his rodeo trophies and show ribbons. He wears denim and flannel and has huge hands with waxen skin. “I was a very capable horseman,” he says, tipping his head. “I don’t mind an old boast on that one.”
On the issue of brumbies there’s no hysteria: merely a few points he wants to get off his chest. “They’ve bred up to the extent that they are overpopulated,” Flannagan concedes. “No matter what the animal, you’ve gotta have a culling rate. But you do it humanely.” Trap them, he says, and take them out of the park, even down to the knackery in nearby Maffra. Better that than leaving corpses in the bush for the wild dogs or feral pigs to eat. “Shoot a horse, and a sow with nine piglets will have a feast,” he says. “It’s gonna make them real healthy. Then you’ve got another problem.”
Flannagan has that enviable rural pragmatism, but I want to hear the romantic history, riding into the hills as a young man to catch “buckjumpers and maneaters”. There are beautiful black-and-white films of such musters, and Flannagan was the star of one: the 1965 documentary Buckrunners about a world of canvas swags and yodelling mountain music.
“Away you’d go on a Friday afternoon, up the bush. It was big-time fun. Big-time!” he says, closing his eyes. “It was glorious country. Riding up onto the Bogong High Plains on a beautiful day, you grow to 10 foot tall.” Waiting by makeshift stockyards, the anticipation built before he heard the hooves. “Here they come,” whispers Flannagan. “Sound carries a long way up there, and the horse you’re sitting on – hello – he can sense it, too. His ears prick up, he trembles. He knows the action’s on.”
The horse rescuers: saving one four-legged friend at a time
I want to see this for myself, so I leave Flannagan and drive north-west for an hour to the Bundara River in Anglers Rest, where Victorian Liberal MP Bill Tilley is waiting by his caravan. He’s here to support an audacious plan to save the brumbies by catching them, then giving them sanctuary on private land “until there’s a change of government”.
As night falls, Tilley clarifies: “This plan to go out and indiscriminately slaughter horses without proper consultation is why people are outraged.” There’s a deep mistrust here – says the member for Benambra, without irony – of government. “You cannot manage our parks from a desktop in Nicholson Street, Melbourne. You’ve gotta resource people on the ground, and communicate and consult, with those who live it and breathe it every day.”
The brumby thus becomes a cause to be harnessed in the fight against change imposed from the state capital. To members of the resistance, the expanding ski resort at nearby Mt Hotham is “a scar on the hill”, a proposed mountain bike trail in Omeo is “a misuse of grazing property”, and keeping cattle out of national parks is “locking up the land”.
“You want to talk about destruction? Look at people,” pleads Ensay farmer Carol Faithfull. “Walking tracks of wood and steel. Ripping up tracks with four-wheel drives. Campsite areas that are just trashed.” I camp later with Faithfull and her partner, Charles Connley, in forest to the south. “People believe this is a disaster area, but we don’t believe that,” Connley says. “Look around you.”
A brook bubbles nearby. Thin moss clings to mottled branches. I’m sipping beer and eating a crispy sausage with my fingers, while a fire pit crackles with mountain ash, the embers floating up into the dark where that old chandelier – the Milky Way galaxy – dazzles down. There’s a tall tree with a plaque in memory of an old bushie who used to chase brumbies here. Nailed to the trunk is a cross with an upturned horseshoe and a carved message: Living the dream.
“People here fear that getting rid of the brumby is just the first step in something bigger,” warns Connley. “We think what they want to do is get rid of recreational riding, and remove the horses from the landscape altogether.”
Yet perhaps the biggest point of contention is the brumby population estimate, which was based on a 2019 aerial survey covering 7443 square kilometres of Victoria and NSW, and used statistical modelling to determine brumby density. Opponents believe such estimates are compromised – that the bushfires last summer would have dramatically thinned the population.
Many “celebrity” brumbies have already disappeared, like the magnificent stallion Paleface and his son Bogong, and their herds in the Kiandra region. The survey spotters also only laid eyes on 1748 actual brumbies, so the estimated total (25,318) includes what the sceptics call “an imaginary 23,570 wild horses”.
Connley puts it best: “If you wanted to guess the population of Victoria, you wouldn’t fly over the MCG on grand final day, and extrapolate your numbers from the people gathered on one acre in Melbourne.”https://omny.fm/shows/good-weekend-talks-1/high-horses-the-fight-to-save-australias-alpine-br/embed?background=f4f5f7&description=1&download=1&foreground=0a1633&highlight=096dd2&image=1&share=1&style=artwork&subscribe=1
It might snow tonight, 1497 metres above sea level on the Bogong High Plains, but Philip Maguire, who owns land below us, leans back in a camp chair, cloaked in his Drizabone, and comfortably holds court, reciting his own poetry.
“I was born here in the mountains, where the life is wild and free, And I love the rugged beauty, there’s just nowhere else for me. From their snowy peaks in winter to the summer sunlit plains, The splendour of the flowers in the gentle soaking rains.”
He continues, deeper and deeper into a ballad of joyous unrestricted gallops and whistling winds, all from memory. But nearing the end his tone shifts, abruptly, to a lament. Traditions are under threat. Malevolent forces are pushing horsemen off the hills.
“The next generations, they too have a right, To a life riding free, same as us. Not to be lackeys and carry the bags, when the tourists arrive in a bus. I can tame a wild stallion or face a wild bull, I can handle a wild rushing mob. But arguing politics isn’t my game, I just can’t handle the job.”
It’s a salty last line, but not quite true. Maguire, you see, is a political animal. A former journalist for the Sunday Herald Sun, he wrote that poem in 1984, when he was a senior adviser to Peter Ross-Edwards – then leader of the Victorian National Party – the same year he helped organise the famous protest in which 304 mounted graziers converged on Melbourne’s Parliament House.
Some people disparage the 60-year-old as a “showman” or a “milk bar cowboy”, but to the brumby cause he is a volatile messiah, with huge support, not least through the “Rural Resistance” Facebook page he established – where many of the 23,000 members refer to him as the leader of “The Maguire Army”. He launched his own 11th-hour Supreme Court injunction a few weeks ago to prevent the cull, claiming a lack of community consultation. The Victorian court swiftly dismissed his appeal, but his supporters see him as a man who acts. He has already solicited $250,000 in donations to keep fighting, all the way to the High Court.
There is a touch of PT Barnum in him, too. This plan to give wild horses sanctuary was his, and it brought me up here – as well as the ABC, the Herald Sun and The New York Times. When I told one old bushie the plan, at first he laughed. “Phil? Phil’s a bloody hopeless horseman! Couldn’t ride a black horse out of sight at midnight!” he roared. Then he turned reflective: “But he knows how to get people interested.”
“They’ll have an uprising on their hands. We’re not going to stand for it any more.”
We go for a walk the next day, and come to the ancient stockyard where farmers used to muster cattle and brumbies. It’s all charred now, and Maguire blames the Labor government for “cultural vandalism” and not “managing the land” (by allowing grazing up here, to reduce fuel load). “If I had Daniel Andrews here right now, I’d f…ing deck him,” Maguire spits. “I’d drop him.”
That has nothing to do with the brumby, of course, but up here grievances past and present grow entangled as one. Maguire is gathering names for a petition, for instance, with thousands of people stating that they no longer recognise Parks Victoria as a legitimate authority. “They’ll have an uprising on their hands,” he broods. “We’re not gonna stand for it any more.”
This is not specific to Maguire. Exasperated advocates for the brumby cause often turn to opprobrium, rumour and conspiracy theory. If brumby sightings are down in a given week? “Cull’s probably begun.” If they see disturbed earth? “Could be a mass grave.”
To some, particularly online, the reason for the cull is obvious: “Dictator Dan” is trying to drive all horsemen off the land in a shadowy scheme to sell public land for a ski resort owned by Chinese nationals. On a recent morning after The Age printed a look at the science behind the issue, a lobbyist emailed me in a rage. “Why has your colleague produced such a one-sided bullshit article?” she wrote. “It’s propaganda shit again.”
The Great Alpine Road unspools slowly, patiently hugging the hills, leaping Swifts Creek and the Haunted Stream. Five hours later I’m in Melbourne, where I’ve come to meet more “brumby huggers” in Treasury Gardens. A demonstration is in full swing, protesters holding posters of big-eyed brumbies in rifle crosshairs, because #brumbylivesmatter.
The crowd of about 200 is 95 per cent female, which one woman at the rally attributes to Black Beauty and My Little Pony. Horse-breaker Angel Tanner from Narrandera, NSW, thinks there are simply two ways of tackling the same problem. “There’s the romance of The Man from Snowy River, and the cracks and cowboys – the fantasy,” says Tanner, who has thin dreadlocks and a nose ring. “And then there’s the women – presenting and petitioning in a peaceful manner.”
Jill Pickering, 73, surveys the scene from her mobility scooter. “It doesn’t buck,” she jokes in a British accent. Pickering grew up in Woking, in south-west England, and contracted polio at nine. Horse-riding was part of the regimen used to build strength in her legs. She was 60 when she saw her first brumby, on a horseback trek in Victoria. “I was just captivated,” she says, blue eyes gleaming. “It was incredible.”
Saving this part of our “national psyche” became a calling. She helped found the Australian Brumby Alliance to bring together disparate advocacy bodies, became president, and in late 2018 launched the Federal Court action to save the animals. We speak the week after that case is lost, costing her about $400,000. She’s devastated. “But like any worthy cause, you just have to keep pushing,” she says. “It’s like the brumbies are my children anyway – my inheritance is their inheritance.”
She introduces me at the rally to Colleen O’Brien, who runs Brumby Junction – a sanctuary solely for brumbies, two hours west of Melbourne in Glenlogie. It’s a prohibitively expensive passion project. “I’ve been a full-time volunteer for 12 years,” O’Brien says. “My husband – thankfully – is CEO of an international synthetic textiles manufacturer, and he funds all of this.”
One of her main causes – and cause for disappointment – is a rejected plan to sterilise the brumbies. O’Brien has made trips to the United States, investigating successful fertility control programs for mustangs in Nevada, Wyoming and Colorado. “You do it with a dart gun, then 12 months later you dart them a second time, and they won’t have a foal for two years,” she says. “In Wyoming there’s a woman who’s 80, named Ada. She pulls out her deck chair, sets herself up with her thermos of tea, waits for the mustangs, and just picks them off as they pass.”
O’Brien took this plan to Parks Victoria, offering to cover costs, volunteer staffing, and research engagement, but was turned down. She sees this as ideologically driven stubbornness, and it leaves her doubting the experts. “I didn’t realise how subjective science could be,” she muses. “It can go either way, a bit like the Bible. Is it ‘An eye for an eye’? Or is it ‘Thou shalt not kill?’ ”
It’s for that reason that the pro-brumby team found its own scientist. David Berman is a research fellow in sustainable agriculture at the University of Southern Queensland, and has written extensively on feral horses. This year he began a longitudinal study on horses in the Victorian high country, examining 16 sites from a previous survey, counting horse-dung mounds and measuring stream bank damage.
It won’t be finished until 2024, but the impact he recorded was limited and isolated. “The other research seemed to focus on areas where there was impact, where it was concentrated,” Berman says, “and it distorts the reality of the damage.”
Berman is a horseman, however – a showjumper since he was a child – and admits that in these circumstances he is “trying” to be a scientist: “objective within an emotional conflict”. His contribution was dismissed in Federal Court by Justice Michael O’Bryan, who described his testimony as idiosyncratic conjecture: “The evidence presented by Dr Berman was not supported by scientific studies and was not persuasive.”
One scientist whose work the court did find persuasive, however, is botanist Dick Williams. We meet one brisk morning at Elwood Beach, as he strides out of Port Phillip Bay in fluorescent Speedos – not exactly the ivory-tower egghead his opponents might imagine. “Mate, we’re bushies,” Williams says, clenching fists. “We get out and up there, and are as tough and self-sufficient as anybody. We’ve gotta be, because we spend long periods of time in the alps.”
He loves the place, and the people, too. But science has to work hard against tales passed down from one farmer to the next, and the deep sense of proprietorship those stories engender. While I was in the high country, for instance, I watched in horror as a local grazier named Sonia Buckley – filming a documentary about brumbies – tore strips off a Good Weekend photographer over the most minor imagined slight.
“I’m a fifth-generation high-country cattlewoman!” she barked, pointing a finger. “And we don’t need people from the city coming up here, treating us with disrespect. So f… off home!”
Williams nods. “That’s their branding,” he says. “But we have that heritage, too.” Alpine science started in the 1850s with Baron Ferdinand von Mueller, and from there you can draw a research lineage through Alfred Howitt in the 1870s, Richard Helms in the 1890s, then Professor John Turner, who supervised David Ashton, who in turn supervised Williams himself. Williams has mentored scientists of his own, who are now supervising students of their own. “In a way,” he says, “I’m an academic grandfather.”
Energised by his winter dip, Williams is ready to offer rebuttals. I point out how cattlemen often dismiss the value of moss beds and “sphagnum whatevers”, or mock the broad-toothed rat, whose existence is threatened by the brumby – along with the stocky galaxias fish and the southern corroboree frog. “They’re not as flashy as a horse jumping over a log,” says Williams, “but these species have their own intrinsic value, and some are as rare as rocking-horse poo.”
But the denial of science is what irks him most. “If we ran agriculture, transport or medicine according to the dismissive, anecdotal logic being used here, we’d starve, planes would fall from the sky, and the hospitals would be full. It’s like the ludicrous notions of anti-vaxxers – they’re immune to evidence. Australians produce 2 per cent of the world’s science, which is punching massively above our weight. We’re smarter than saying, ‘Green tops and white-coaters don’t know anything about the bush.’ We’re better than that.”
I’m not sure we are. The image of a man on horseback, pinching the front of his Akubra, seems to pack more punch than any peer-reviewed paper, which is why someone like Professor Don Driscoll, director of the Centre for Integrative Ecology at Melbourne’s Deakin University, finds himself constantly retelling grim anecdotes like the tale of the “cannibal horses”.
Driscoll was hiking a snowy peak in 2014, in Kosciuszko National Park, when he stumbled upon a gruesome tableau at the aptly named Dead Horse Gap. Horses often get trapped above the snowline and starve to death, so it’s not uncommon to see a dead brumby. Then he saw three emaciated horses gathered around the carcass. “I thought they were nuzzling it, pining for a loved one,” Driscoll says. “But their heads were actually inside the abdominal cavity of the dead one, up to their ears. I think they were after the semi-digested grass still inside.”
I point out how many high-country people reject such descriptions: there are no starving masses or trampled flora in their alps. “It’s very insulting,” Driscoll says. “One cattleman claimed there couldn’t be more than 3500 horses in the alps, and that’s based on what? Riding your horse around and looking? It’s laughable rubbish.”
Yet there are places in which brumby advocates have legitimate cause for outrage, including Parks Victoria’s Feral Horse Strategic Action Plan (2018-2021). The document carefully details a government plan to remove up to 400 horses per year by passive trapping, and specifically notes – in bold font – that “shooting will not be used to control free-ranging feral horses”. The plan makes an allowance to revisit that latter policy but explicitly promises “further public consultation and dialogue”. No such consultation has happened so far.
Phil Ingamells is head of the Victorian National Parks Association’s Park Protection Project, and has been involved in endless meetings between graziers and brumby runners, RSPCA staff and ecologists, in which he says every option has been discussed, ad nauseum. “Short of putting a 10-page advertisement in every newspaper, someone’s always going to say, ‘No one asked me!’ Parks Victoria is no longer really obliged to consult.”
What about the argument that deer are more prolific than horses, or that pig wallows are a more intrusive form of destruction, or that the wild dog and feral cat problem is ignored in favour of the scapegoat brumby? “It’s called the ‘Look over there!’ argument,” Ingamells says. “When the cattlemen had cattle in the high country, they pointed at the brumbies as causing the damage. Now when you try to deal with the brumbies, they want you to focus on the deer.” And rest assured, deer are definitely in the gunsights. More than 1500 deer, pigs and wild goats have been shot in aerial culls this year, while fox baiting continues. “But there’s been no aerial shooting of horses in the alps, and there will not be.”
That’s an important point. Aerial culling has a bad reputation, owing largely to the infamous killing of 606 horses 20 years ago, in the NSW Guy Fawkes National Park. Fiona Carruthers, author of The Horse in Australia, saw the aftermath of the 2000 cull. She flew overhead and remembers the smell.
“What was so appalling was that some of those brumbies had up to 10 bullet holes – through the rump, thigh, neck – not a clean kill straight into the eyes or heart. A couple of the brumbies killed were mares, and one had started foaling, and her carcass was there with the foal’s head – dead – sticking out.”
An official report cleared the operation as appropriate and successful, with evidence of only one horse suffering a prolonged death, but few on the ground believe this. Aerial culling of horses has been shelved ever since. Carruthers, however, notes that we freely shoot from above to kill kangaroos and camels, and no one makes a fuss. “People caring more about the horses makes me think of Animal Farm,” she says. “Are some animals more equal than others?”
Mobs of wild horses have roamed the Australian alps for more than 150 years, having either escaped or been set free from pastoral properties, while some are said to carry the bloodline of the Waler, horses bred to meet the vast cavalry needs of the Australian Light Horse in World War I – a popular origin story that connects the courageous brumby to the ANZAC legend. “But the fact is they have no particular genetic heritage that’s worth preserving,” Deakin University’s Driscoll says. “The evidence available says that a horse is a horse.”
Extensively inbred, many brumbies today look mangy and small, with pencil necks and pot bellies, and they were regarded as a worthless scourge long ago. In 1889, the Richmond River Herald described how mobs were driven into trap lanes, where a man stood waiting with a keen knife: “As each animal passed, its jugular vein was severed, and the bleeding creature tore madly away into its native scrub, only to stagger and die from loss of blood.”
Literature helped render a more flattering portrait, particularly the wildly popular Silver Brumby novels of Elyne Mitchell. Yet Mitchell also wrote two lesser-known non-fiction books – Speak to the Earth and Soil and Civilisation – about protecting the Australian bush.
The Man From Snowy River by Banjo Paterson has the most resonance, of course, but the poem doesn’t use the word “brumby” even once. Paterson’s “wild bush horses” are little more than a prop for the bloody chase after a millionaire’s thoroughbred, which makes sense coming from a lawyer in blue-ribbon Yass, who mixed with skiers and Sydney doctors. Paterson was a hopeless romantic, too, and was mercilessly lampooned by his great rival, Henry Lawson, a miserable cuss and alcoholic who produced verse that was distinctly more gloomy – and accurate – arguing that Paterson was “blinded to the real”.
Apparently we all are, too. In a random survey of community attitudes, 78 per cent of Victorians didn’t know that brumbies are listed as a pest animal, despite the fact that we’ve spent more than a century treating them as something to be chased, shot and chopped into pet food.
That’s not the goal, though. “I don’t think it’s even possible to eradicate horses from the alps,” says Matthew Jackson, the CEO of Parks Victoria. “And we haven’t said we aim to eradicate them. But we want these parks to be pristine, and we have obligations not only ethically but legally – under acts – to maintain these cultural assets.”
They also have no plans, he says, to lock out recreational riders. “For some members of the community, horses in the high country are paramount to their lives. Taking that away is simply not on the table.”
Rehoming the animals would be wonderful, but Parks Victoria advertised five expressions of interest in the past year and could only rehome 15 brumbies. The sterilisation option proposed by O’Brien? The inaccessibility of our alps, says Jackson, means the Australian and American settings aren’t an “apple-to-apple comparison”.
In 2018, the CSIRO published a study – “Could current fertility control methods be effective for landscape-scale management of populations of wild horses (Equus caballus) in Australia?” – and the short, resounding answer was no.
Jackson understands the squeamish resistance to shooting horses, but what he finds unacceptable are the attacks on his department. “We refer those to Victoria Police,” he says. “It’s inappropriate for people to be threatened at work or online, on the phone or in the street. Whether in jest or joking, we take it seriously.”
So does Richard Swain, 50, a Wiradjuri man of the Dabee clan who grew up near where he now lives, in Cooma, NSW. Swain runs Alpine River Adventures in nearby Jindabyne, but has put the business second to protecting his country. When I call – the night before he heads out bush to undertake a feral-cat trapping program (protecting the smoky mouse and mountain pygmy possum) – he sounds defeated. Barilaro’s brumby bill was his breaking point. “It was like taking a sledgehammer to a baby; like killing the last bit of the Barrier Reef.”
“Being Australian to them is Vegemite, or a Holden car, or Bradman’s average. I want to shame them into caring for country.”
Swain takes people on Indigenous walking tours, educating them about the way the land has been “disrespected and desecrated”, and last year held a ceremony to sing healing back into the land. His message is not being met well. Online he has been mocked as a “half-caste wanker”, while opponents have used fake social media accounts to discredit him and online notice boards to rubbish his business.
He was walking in the bush recently with his 83-year-old mother when an opponent screamed at them: “Go suck a dick!” His wife often finds her car plastered with “Save the Brumby” stickers. He’s started getting flat tyres, punctured with nails.
“I’m completely fed up. I now call them ‘Aussies by name’ and not by nature. But it’s a broader cultural issue,” Swain says. “Being Australian to them is Vegemite, or a Holden car, or Bradman’s average. They belligerently don’t want to form a connection. I want to shame them into caring for country.”
Some of them already care deeply for country, of course, even if their perspectives diverge. Benedetti, the horse-breaker, is one. He says he will keep coming up to the high country in the near future, pulling the big horse float he hopes to fill with sturdy little hooves. “I’m gonna give this winter a hard crack,” says Benedetti. “I’d like to save a few from the rifle, and have a brumby sale in spring. A couple of dozen.”
In the weeks after I leave, he roams our landscape alone, catching mares and foals, posting luminous photos of the shimmering Snowy River, and fresh green pick on the steep side of Mt Kosciuszko. But I remember him best in my final moments on the Nunnet Plains, an expanse of thick grass and dead gums silvering in the sun.
He sees a mob before him, but the dozen blacks and bays and greys twig to his presence early, and charge away. The crack rider follows – light in the saddle, digging spurs and clutching reins – and he closes as the tree line nears.
A brutal silent wind whips across the land now, and the pursuit vanishes into the bush. As the familiar chase continues, dark cloud shadows creep over the plains. The brumbies are on the run.
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