A brumby and wallaby frolic in the ssnow.

Brook Mitchell
 / Stringer via Getty

Kill Them All: Will Australia’s War With Feral Horses Ever End?

Foxes, pigs and rabbits are culled frequently with little dispute. But when it comes to horses, things are freakishly tense.
Arielle Richards
Melbourne, AU

As a belligerent bookworm and horse-obsessed child, I devoured Banjo Patterson's iconic Man From Snowy River, in ballad and film form, and obsessed over Elyne Mitchell’s The Silver Brumby series. My impressionable, horse-mad mind had been primed by novels set in the west of America, where mustangs roamed. I treasured the idea that even here, in Australia, we had wild horses out there somewhere, free, untamed.


It was all so romantic. But so deeply wrong.

Brumbies have been all over Australia for two centuries, tracing back to the freed or escaped horses brought by the first white settlers to the continent. The country has the largest feral horse population in the world, with an estimated number of 400,000. 

And just as their original owners brutally colonised this land, the horses continue the legacy.

Brumbies aren’t the only feral herd in the country posing a serious risk to threatened habitats. We have the largest camel population in the world, and wild pigs, rabbits and foxes run rampant. But the damage caused by horses is severe. Animals native to the continent are soft-footed, unlike horses’ hard hooves which compact the soil, trample delicate native flora, and irreparably damage sensitive ecosystems. They have no natural predators and their populations multiply rapidly. 

Foxes, pigs and rabbits are culled frequently with little dispute. But when it comes to horses, things are freakishly tense.

Back in 2000, the cultural icon of the “Australian Heritage Brumby” was reinvigorated when a tribute to the horses and the Aussie stockman opened the Sydney Olympics. Shortly after, public outcry was sparked when reports of 617 wild horses being shot from a helicopter in Guy Fawkes River National Park hit the news. The majority of the drama was supplied by locals, enraged at finding several horses that were failed targets in the shooting – not killed humanely, but left to die from their wounds. 


The furore that followed the Olympics-driven international attention wasn’t a great look for Australia, and NSW’s then-environment minister Bob Debus ordered a halt on the culling, as well as an inquiry into the practices. 

Before this, the feral horse population – much the same for other introduced species – was a source of concern and was a frequent topic of research papers throughout the late 20th century. But back then, the public sentiment towards brumby culls was overwhelmingly positive. 

A 1949 ABC Weekly story that followed a brumby trapping escapade leads:

“Those wild horses are in the news again. It seems they’ve increased enormously over the war years. City orators blame the pastoralists for neglect; station owners blame the lack of labour; professional brumby men curse their inability to get ammunition.”

In the late 70s and early 80s, the tone began to shift. Construction of a ski pass in the Corin Forest of the ACT sparked a political debate over whether to remove the small herd of “Smokers Gap Brumbies''. This received a lot of press attention, evolving into a public controversy over animal welfare, tourism and environmental concerns, bolstering the brumby-sympathetic cause in the public eye.


By the 90s, aerial shooting from helicopters, which happened regularly in the NT, was criticised by animal welfare groups as “cruel and inhumane”, while it was widely understood that the populations could not be controlled by solely capturing and training the horses. Even then, options were being explored for the removal of horses in Kosciuszko national park. They were multiplying at too fast a rate for rehoming to be a solution, and – morbid as it is – the slaughterhouse could only take so many.

All this is to say: The feral horse debate isn’t new. But the current level of virulent animosity is.

In the high country, spanning south-east New South Wales across Australia’s largest alpine national park, brumby advocacy groups have adamantly pushed for the protection of the animals over the past decade or so.

What’s new is the introduction of Facebook for these groups as a means of communicating, organising, campaigning, and, of course, trolling. 

Last week, the ABC’s Four Corners documentary, Feral, explored the issue at depth. It’s a uniquely depressing Australian Gothic story, encapsulating the tension at the nexus of this country’s colonial history and ecological future. 


The Heritage Brumby Association Facebook page, run by the Australian Brumby Alliance, a pro-brumby lobbying group formed in 2007 with chapters in each state, is one of the most vocal voices in the fight. Since the Four Corners episode they have been adamant that it was “sensationalised reporting not investigative journalism”. 

The page features a slew of furious posts discrediting the ABC’s work. They warn anyone who will listen that the investigation “is based on a narrative that Brumby supporters are feral like the horses we love”. 

“We are not,” they urged. “The ABA has reached out a number of times to all stakeholders to try and find common ground and ways we can move forward re discussions for the Brumbies.”

Tensions have been increasing steadily after the New South Wales government announced a plan to cull 10,000 of the expected 14,000-strong population in Kosciuszko national park late last year. 

Brumby advocacy groups vehemently dispute those numbers, insisting there are only really 3000 or fewer brumbies in the park – numbers they have estimated through “on the ground” research – and that the planned eradication will make the horses extinct in the area. 


On the other hand, scientists, environmentalists, and animal advocacy groups agree: kill them all.

“Where was the respectful commentary on the cultural and spiritual connection of white Australians with brumbies and the land?”

Feral depicts the abuse, threats, and trolling, both online and in person, that has been levelled at scientists and Kosciuszko employees from the pro-brumby front over the past few years.

It’s a microcosm of something which has happened repeatedly, with the introduction of social media as a means of communication. But this time – unique from common environmentalism debates – the animal protection side is at odds with – and denies – the science.

Since the episode aired, furious posts have lashed back. In posts shared to the “Snowymountainbrumby Action Group” Facebook page, Richard Swain, an Indigenous River Guide at Kosciusko who was featured in the documentary, is addressed.

“Richard Swain declares ‘Cultural War’. I hereby demand that Richard Swain retract his statement that this is a cultural war as this is outright racism and bigotry!” the post reads, under a picture of Swain.

“This statement was aired on the ABC Four Corners report “FERAL” last night at 8.30 pm and is a direct attack to the European Heritage within Australia!

I am appalled that the ABC - AUSTRALIAN BROADCASTING COMMISSION would broadcast inciteful (sic) hate speech.”


Further down, another post labelling scientists and advocates from the documentary as “Invasive Species” gained a flurry of enraged agreement from group members.

Other posts use false equivalences and straw-man arguments to discredit the scientific front, while posing their own questions:

“Where was an analysis of alternative methodology for population surveys? Ever hear of paid science?”

“Where was the respectful commentary on the cultural and spiritual connection of white Australians with brumbies and the land?”

They’re always “just questions”.

It’s a form of internet warfare that is strikingly familiar in a time of misinformation and conspiracy communities on Facebook and Twitter: Small groups of people, stuck in a world that is rapidly changing around them, feeling unheard and unrecognised by those who are supposed to be in charge. Eventually, they find community in uniting together to fight against a perceived threat. 

Regardless of the relative fragility of their arguments, or of the science, they won’t give up the fight, only sinking deeper into their firmly-held beliefs.

brumbies in the desert

Auscape / Contributor via Getty

The truth is, the existence of the brumbies in the park has little to do with the horses themselves, but all to do with the idea they represent. 

The brumby issue is only really hotly contested in this specific region. For some members of the brumby advocacy groups, the interests are commercial. Many run riding tours in the park and surrounding alpine regions, which capitalise on the cultural legacy of the wild brumby, The Man From Snowy River, and the colonial, pioneering roots of the mountain people.

For the most part, it’s this legacy – and their perceived right to be there – that the pro-brumby groups want to preserve. 

In the Four Corners documentary, passionate brumby advocate Leisa Caldwell revealed the nugget of truth at the essence of their cause.

"They demonstrate the connection of our past and our identity. And they're the last connection," she told Four Corners. 

"There's a few mountain huts that still exist but if it wasn't for the horses, there's nothing left to prove that we existed. They're the last piece."

The brumbies are the last vestiges in the region of the Australian stockman legend, of the colonial era, of the Australian mystique. In the 50s, during the construction of the Snowy Mountains Scheme, towns flooded. Stockmen, who had called the mountains home, were moved off their properties and stripped of their mountain person status. 


Caldwell was raised in Sydney but moved to the region for her husband, whose family was one of those moved off the land. Now, alpine resorts multiply to occupy the space, further edging out the “true blue” Aussie legend. 

For people like the Caldwells, whose identity was peeled back and stripped away, the brumbies are the only legacy remaining of that forgotten era.

But in 2022, who is the legacy really for? Surely not for those of us who have grown up in cities, nor for immigrants to the country, and surely not for the First Nations peoples whose lands were colonised not long ago by those very same stockmen, and those very same horses.

Today, for most residents on the continent, the idea that there are wild horses roaming parts of the country is inconsequential. Travelling to these regions is expensive – a luxury – and while the idea may spark romantic ideas, alighted by tales of a forgotten time, many people will never actually get to see a wild horse. 

It’s a colonial fever dream, and in the face of ecological disaster, perhaps it’s time for the wild brumby to take its place alongside the Man From Snowy River: A myth in literature and legend only.

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