Majestic Icon or Invasive Pest? A War Over Australia’s Wild Horses

Scientists say the animals, known as brumbies, must be culled because they are destroying rivers and endangering native wildlife. Rural activists call these efforts an attack on Australian heritage.

By Livia Albeck-Ripka

Photographs by Matthew Abbott

  • June 28, 2020

ANGLERS REST, Australia — Coming over the rise, Philip Maguire gripped the mane of his white gelding and rose on his heels to survey the bush land. He had hoped to be photographed mustering wild horses, but the animals weren’t playing along.

“They were sitting up there on that ridge,” Mr. Maguire said of the horses, now spooked by the human intrusion. “They’ll come back,” he huffed. “I’ll run them again.”

Mr. Maguire, a 60-year-old cattleman, is leading a campaign to prevent the Australian authorities from culling the wild horses, known as brumbies. The clash traces some of the country’s biggest fault lines, including its urban-rural divide and the legacy of colonialism.

To scientists and the politicians who support the policy, culling is a matter of environmental protection. The horses, an invasive species whose populations are booming, must be removed because they are trampling ancient ecosystems in the Australian Alps already hurt by climate change, they say.

To Mr. Maguire and his followers, the fight is about a way of life they perceive to be under threat. They see brumbies, the descendants of horses introduced by European settlers, as symbols of a rugged individualism that they believe is being lost in modern Australia.

“It’s a culture war,” Mr. Maguire said last month as he searched in vain for the horses.

A burly man, he wore a brown waterproof coat faded by years of wear. “This is my heritage,” he said. “All our culture is gone, by people saying anything that’s not native is not good.”

He was referring to the animals, though he may well have had people in mind, too.

Mr. Maguire’s lobbying for the brumbies is part of a backlash to a growing movement in Australia to correct historical narratives that cast white settlers as conquering an “empty” and untilled continent. Instead, there is now broad acceptance of Indigenous people’s careful guardianship of the land for tens of thousands of years, before their territories and culture were stolen.

These efforts have been buoyed recently by the protests against racism in the United States, which have inspired activists around the world to tear down symbols of colonialism.

Still, some Australians find it difficult “to recognize the dispossession and genocide of Indigenous Australians,” said James Pittock, a professor of environmental science at the Australian National University in Canberra. The brumby, he said, is a kind of “talisman” for those holding on to nationalist visions of Australia’s history.

In Australia, rural residents, who make up less than 30 percent of the population, have often been at odds with city dwellers and urban politicians, seeing them as out of touch and incompetent in their management of the bush. Brumby activists have taken action by lobbying for political favor in some states, where they have won protections for the horses.

In New South Wales, which is led by the center-right Liberal Party, former politicians with financial interests in tourism operations that depend on the brumbies helped drive a 2018 bill protecting the feral horses.

The move by the state, Australia’s most populous, dismayed Australian and international scientists, who said it would set a “disturbing precedent.”

In the state of Victoria, which has a center-left Labor government, officials say they intend to proceed with culling hundreds of horses after Mr. Maguire lost a legal battle there. He says he will take his fight to Australia’s highest court.

Still, to many Australians, brumbies are majestic, untamed creatures that live in children’s books, poetry and films. But leaving them to thrive in the bush, scientists say, would come at the expense of creatures and plants far more precious and rare.

“Our native animals are our brothers and sisters,” said Richard Swain, an Indigenous alpine guide who advises the Invasive Species Council, a conservation group. “It’s really, really, heartbreaking,” he added of the damage done by the horses.

In Australia’s alpine region, thousands of the feral horses trample fragile moss beds, damage the sources of major river systems and harm the habitats of animals found nowhere else in the world — systems that are struggling to recover from last summer’s unprecedented bush fires.

Last year, a survey of the region showed that the horse population had more than doubled in density in a five-year period. Claims by brumby activists that the animals are simply a scapegoat for damage done by wild deer and pigs do not hold up against extensive studies of the region, the scientists add.

“The evidence for this is not in dispute,” said David M. Watson, a professor of ecology at Charles Sturt University, south of Sydney, who quit his job advising the New South Wales government on managing the horses because he believed the science was being ignored.

A general distrust of science, fed by disinformation from the conservative media, has deepened rural Australia’s divide with the country’s urban areas. Of Mr. Maguire, Dr. Watson said: “Who do you put up against that person on a podium? Some crusty scientist with a clipboard?”

He and other scientists acknowledge that the culling is an ugly task to save other species, like the corroboree frog and the broad-toothed rat — which are found nowhere else in the world — from extinction.

“This is not about vilifying horses,” Dr. Watson said. But the stakes are immensely high, he added, when plants that have survived hundreds of millions of years in the harshest conditions are at risk of being wiped out in favor of the descendants of a common farm animal.

“In the blink of an eye, a couple of cowboys come in, wave their whips around, everyone gets all misty-eyed, and those lineages are relegated to the dustbin,” he said.

Many brumby activists argue that the animals should be captured and moved to sanctuaries instead of being killed. In the United States, park authorities spend more than $50 million annually to manage booming mustang populations, which are protected from culling by federal law.

“We can catch them, that’s no problem,” said Lewis Benedetti, a horse tamer from Mount Taylor, about 175 miles from Melbourne, who has previously mustered the feral horses on contract with the state authorities and who advocates finding new homes for them.

Mr. Benedetti leapt onto the bare back of a brumby he had tamed to show how placid the animal was. “They want to shoot them,” he said. “Doesn’t that make you upset?”

While it may be possible to move the horses to sanctuaries in small numbers, these programs are difficult to scale up, experts say, especially without adequate funding, as the out-of-control mustang numbers in the United States show.

In late May, Mr. Benedetti and a handful of other activists gathered at Mr. Maguire’s property, from which they made their way on horseback toward the foothills of the Australian Alps. They said they planned to round up the brumbies and take them to safety on his land.

All around, the bush was decimated: Buds sprang from tree trunks blackened by the recent fires, while other trees were toppled entirely. Nearly all that remained of moss beds were muddy puddles — the impact, scientists say, of the recent fires, as well as hard-hooved horses trampling a landscape accustomed to native soft-footed creatures like kangaroos.

Leading the group toward a cattleman’s hut built by his great-uncle, Mr. Maguire began to recite the poetry of Banjo Paterson, an Australian author and journalist who documented the decline of pastoralism and, along with it, a wild Australia.

“Australia has lost its affinity for the bush,” Mr. Maguire said, echoing Paterson in his own words. “We’ve become a different kind of people.”

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Livia Albeck-Ripka is a reporter for The Times, currently based in Melbourne, Australia. Follow her on Twitter: @livia_ar A version of this article appears in print on June 29, 2020, Section A, Page 11 of the New York edition with the headline: Majestic Icon or Invasive Pest? A War Over Australia’s Wild Horses. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Phil Maguire

Admin · 1 hr

I just read the New York Times piece on our brumbies.

The following statement is an outrageous lie.

“Nearly all that remained of moss beds were muddy puddles — the impact, scientists say, of the recent fires, as well as hard-hooved horses trampling a landscape accustomed to native soft-footed creatures like kangaroos.”

First of all the moss beds were completely burned out and the reporter saw that with her own eyes.

On the way to the hut I pointed out burned moss beds to her.

The sphagnum Moss had been destroyed but it was clear they hadn’t been trampled. But she didn’t walk in and look, however.

The closest she got was a burned out snow grass plain which was where she saw the puddles she refers to.

We pointed all the fire damage out to her and and we’re happy to do it again for any other journalists who’d like to dispute the facts.

There were no signs of trampling by horses, just heavily burnt bogland.

At Dinner Plain in the area surrounding McNamara’s hut the moss beds were in fine condition until destroyed by fire

Anyone who visited before last summer will confirm that.

And if the reporter saw any kangaroos on the high plains I wish she had pointed them them out to the rest of us because it would have been a unique experience seeing roos where there are none.

These so-called scientists she apparently spoke to are either stupid or they are liars. Do they really think 70 little horses have got nothing better to do than than range far and wide over the 370,000 acres of the Bogong High Plains going from moss bed to moss bed trampling them.

How the hell do the idiots think the country has survived 150 years of grazing by horses, especially between 1879 and 1919 when 3000 walers were depastured there?

Their arguments go from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Horses don’t go into boggy ground if they can help it and any scientist studying their environmental impact must know that.

But let’s go back to the New York Times. The reporter talks about a landscape accustomed to soft footed creatures. Why should that mean it can’t become accustomed to hard hoofed animals?

This is a continent that was was inhabited by megafauna like the 2 tonne plus Diprotodon.

If the country could withstand them, and it did for around 1 million years, it can withstand a few thousand horses.

Ever heard a scientist discuss the environmental impact of megafauna over 1 million years? Of course not. And they only disappeared about 40,000 years ago.

The argument about hard hooded animals carries no weight.

All we hear year after year is more and more and more frogshit and it doesn’t come from the spotted free frog.

‘The Aboriginals came here 50,000 years ago and the continent adapted to them and their firestick farming. Things change and we have the ability to help the land adapt.

We have the ability to manage it. Tragically we’re not allowed to because contemptibly stupid green pseudo scientists armed with their clipboards get into the ears of weak minded dull witted politicians who think a university degree is worth a lifetime of intelligent observation.

God help the Australian environment if these fools are left to manage it.

Dr David. M. Watson, quoted in the article, is definitely no Sherlock Holmes but he needs reminding of the fact that the secret to Holmes’ success was intelligent observation.

Dr Watson says: “Who do you put up against that person (me) on a podium. Some crusty scientist with with a clipboard?

Some crusty scientist like you Dr Watson. Join me on the podium while I rip your pseudo science to pieces. I dare you. You wouldn’t be game, old chap.

Picture by Matt Abbott – Cara and I at McNamara’s Hut – our mustering hut.

I wondered why the NY Times was involved – Aly Walley -never did learn how to spell his name because he is an Australia hater and writes for this paper denigrating and laughing at Australians while living here and being paid an outrageous salary to do just that

Published by Nelle

I am interested in writing short stories for my pleasure and my family's but although I have published four family books I will not go down that path again but still want what I write out there so I will see how this goes

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