This story contains graphic images and descriptions of dead animals.
Last month, in the otherwise placid foothills of Australia’s Snowy Mountains, a handwritten letter was delivered to a team of park rangers at their office in Jindabyne. It threatened revenge.
“As a little act of retribution,” the letter read, “we plan to pay a visit… and firebomb your premises! Make sure you are all very careful over the next couple of weeks, we would hate you [sic] to get burnt.”
Just 12 days earlier, a pair of professional photographers who had been hiking in the northern end of nearby Kosciuszko National Park (KNP), about 300 kilometres southwest of Sydney, shared on social media a series of gruesome images: 11 dead horses, with bullet holes bored into their sides, alongside the bloody remains of an aborted foal. These horses weren’t killed for sport. They were wild brumbies, victims of a state-sanctioned cull, and just a small few of the estimated 14,000 ferals that roam the wooded gullies and wide open plains of the region.
Over the past 20 years the horses’ numbers have spiralled out of control—and more recently, a campaign by conservationists and government officials to drastically reduce their head count has inflamed outrage, divided mountain communities, and pitted locals against one another. Fuelled by passion, politics, and settler colonial mythology, New South Wales’ brumby has become a totem in an increasingly hostile culture war; a microcosm of Australia’s ongoing reckoning with its colonial legacy, playing out in remote mountain communities.
On one side are vehement horse enthusiasts, some of whom combine animal rights activism with far-right-adjacent conspiracist views, kicking back against the planned culls. On the other are conservationists, ecologists, and First Nations rangers who insist the hard-hoofed mammals are destroying natural ecosystems and driving endangered species to extinction. It is these people who have found themselves in the firing line of a radical, pro-brumby fringe—would-be vigilantes who seem willing to resort to increasingly drastic measures to protect the animals.
In the days after the photos of the dead horses started circulating, pro-brumby Facebook groups—some with tens of thousands of members—erupted in condemnation. Many claimed the animals had been cruelly slaughtered by trigger-happy “criminals,” suffering slow and painful deaths, while some called for heads to roll and justice to be served. “Sleep with one eye open...” warned one comment. “We’re at war,” declared another, soliciting financial support so that the poster could “destroy [the culprits] piece by piece.”
One of Australia’s most popular radio shock jocks soon waded into the fray, crying bloody murder. The state leader of One Nation, a right-wing political party recently dubbed a hate group, labelled the cull “unauthorised slaughter… [of] an Australian icon.” Threats against park rangers kept trickling in. Then came the bomb note.
Such harassment wasn’t limited to national parks staff, either. James Trezise, a conservation director at the Invasive Species Council (ISC), told VICE World News that around the same time he and his staff were targeted by “phone calls, people trying to dox us, [and] people looking for our home addresses.” But in an organisation that publicly advocates horse culls, this has become par for the course. Trezise said the idea that someone would threaten to firebomb a government building was “not surprising at all.”
“We get similar threats, and so we know that there are a cabal of people that are using increasingly violent rhetoric,” he told VICE World News. “We've had people saying they want to shoot us with shotguns; we've had people saying that they want to shoot back at park rangers… People attack us with regular force.”
Much of that force is directed at one individual, Richard Swain, the Indigenous ambassador for the ISC. As a First Nations Wiradjuri man, a local Alpine River guide, and a campaigner for Reclaim Kosci—a non-government organisation aimed at overturning the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Act enshrining the protection of feral brumbies—there is perhaps no one that has received more abuse from the pro-brumby “cabal” than him.
Even in his hometown of Cooma, 60 kilometres northeast of Jindabyne, Swain says he is constantly haunted by the feeling that something bad is about to happen.
“I look around a lot, waiting for someone to abuse me,” he told VICE World News. “That's been ongoing for a long time.”
“I just thought someone must have been busting and pulled over in our driveway. But then it happened again. And that's when quite a few of the death threats were happening.”
As an outspoken advocate for horse culls, Swain has been the target of verbal abuse, vandalism, and death threats for years. He’s found concrete nails punched into his car tyres on two occasions, and was once accosted at the local market by a group of “crazy horse women” who told him and his 85-year-old mother to “go suck a dick.” In mid-2020, around the same time that pro-brumby advocates were plotting to dump horse heads on the front lawn of former state environment minister Matt Kean’s residence, Swain says that someone defecated outside his house.
“I just thought someone must have been busting and pulled over in our driveway,” he recalled. “But then it happened again. And that's when quite a few of the death threats were happening… on all the brumby pages.”
One such threat, seen by VICE World News, was explicit in its language: “If I was younger I would be sent to jail for murder… as I would like to use a double barrelled shotgun on them and then load these evil morons into a truck and dump them. I am very wicked. Lol.”
“That was a little bit awkward,” Swain said of that period, in a characteristically understated tone. “Worrying about vehicles, and locking the gate out at the road, and checking the vehicles before I drive.”
In the wake of the last month’s horse culls, the abuse levelled at both him and his colleagues has flared up again. And with the shooting of brumbies likely to continue in the future, Trezise says it’s “critical” that all threats are taken seriously.
“There's so much of it, and it's such embedded rhetoric around the way [brumby advocates] talk about these issues, that there is a risk that one of them is unhinged and escalates,” he said. “As lethal control [of horse populations] comes more into play—which it has to—we're going to see more of these types of actions and people who use escalating threats of violence.”
“They value the life of these feral horses more than the lives of other people.”
Conservationists broadly agree that the most humane way to kill a horse is to shoot it in the head or the heart. In KNP, this is done as a secondary resort: passive trapping and rehoming is prioritised whenever possible, and standard operating procedures state that when extermination is required it should be done with animal welfare in mind.
Given the sensitivity of the issue, the exact who’s and how’s are kept under lock and key—but Trezise speculated that it’s likely carried out by professional hunters using silencers and thermal scopes: the former to make sure the horses don’t scatter after the first shot, and the latter to maximise the chance of an instant kill.
Following a caterwaul of animal cruelty complaints and a spate of damning media reports, the NSW government’s National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) eventually claimed responsibility for the 11 horses found dead in northern KNP, near the abandoned gold mining town of Kiandra. Shortly thereafter, the RSPCA investigated the animals’ deaths and declared no indication of foul play. The horses did not slowly bleed to death, NPWS insists, and they were not shot in the gut.
Such revelations have done little to temper the fury of local brumby advocates, though, who are now accusing the RPSCA of corruption and mobilising to defend the remaining herd. One prominent figure in the pro-brumby movement, Alan Lanyon, told VICE World News that over the past three weeks the carcasses of a further 16 shot horses have been found in KNP, and that emotions have now moved past “disappointment” to palpable “frustration and anger.” Others claim there are at least another 200 bodies littered throughout the park.
In a statement released on Sept. 16—a week before receiving the bomb threat—NPWS highlighted the fact that it has a “legal obligation to implement the Kosciuszko National Park Wild Horse Heritage Management Plan,” adopted in 2021 to manage wild horse numbers in KNP. The plan requires, by law, that NPWS reduce the number of wild horses in the Park from over 14,000 to 3,000 by June 2027. In order to do that, the statement noted, some horses are going to have to be shot.
Days later, however, amid ongoing pressure, NPWS ordered an indefinite halt on all ground shooting of feral horses while they conducted a review into the management plan—a heel turn that alarmed scientists and culling advocates. Conservationists warn that if the brumbies’ numbers continue to swell, they pose an existential threat to the Park’s fragile ecosystems.
“Australia's environment didn’t evolve with 100- to 200- kilo animals with hard hooves stomping through sensitive environments. It evolved with kangaroos and wombats and wallabies.”
This is, after all, an invasive species—the descended bloodline of horses that were introduced to Australia by European settlers as early as 1788, with the arrival of the First Fleet. While the first record of horses either escaping into the bush or being abandoned was in 1804, the industrial revolution and the proliferation of agricultural machinery meant that over time more were released to join the growing herds.
Since at least the 1960s, brumbies have been recognised as pests. And in that time, their impact on the land has been devastating.
“Australia's environment didn’t evolve with 100- to 200- kilo animals with hard hooves stomping through sensitive environments,” said Trezise. “It evolved with kangaroos and wombats and wallabies, which move through that landscape and graze that landscape in a very different way.”
For many conservationists, the horses can’t be dispatched quickly enough. It’s believed that the KNP feral brumby population grows by about 20 percent each year, and has ballooned from about 3,000 in 2001, when official surveys started documenting numbers, to more than 14,000 today. As Trezise points out, the KNP brumbies don’t have any natural predators that might curb growth, and the most removed from the Park in a single year—predominantly through trapping and rehoming—is about 700, less than a quarter of what it would take to decrease the current population.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to reducing these numbers is the headstrong local resistance to state-sanctioned culls. The ferocity of that resistance can largely be traced back to what brumby advocates refer to as the “Guy Fawkes massacre,” in 2000, when two teams of trained shooters in helicopters flew low over northern NSW’s Guy Fawkes River National Park and shot 606 feral brumbies.
The herd had been starving to death in the wake of drought and bushfires, gnawing out the roots of plants, and were killed in order to spare their suffering and protect the park. But when a local journalist caught wind that a small handful hadn’t died instantly, and the cull was reported on the news, outrage ensued—leading to investigations, animal cruelty charges, and a temporary state ban on the shooting of feral horses.
These days, brumby advocates point to the Guy Fawkes incident as an example of the mayhem that might ensue from hardfisted culling programs. But conservationists cite it as an inflection point when NSW’s destructive horse populations, and the environmental crisis caused by them, spiralled out of hand.
“The ecological damage that has wrought on NSW for 20 years now has been obscene,” said Swain. “And not just NSW, [but] nationally, by trying to bring aerial culling into ill repute when aerial platform shooting is one of the most humane methods we have.”
In other parts of Australia—which collectively boasts the highest global population of feral horses at more than 400,000—brumbies continue to be culled by shooters from both the ground and air with little to no blowback. But for those living in the Alpine mountain communities around KNP, the herd has garnered a mythical status as an enduring symbol of modern Australian folklore.
Advocates claim the mountain brumbies are a sacred part of the nation’s cultural heritage, owing in part to their alleged role in the Light Horse Brigade—a mounted Australian infantry unit that served in the Middle East theatre of World War I—and their romantic immortalisation in the famous Banjo Patterson poem The Man From Snowy River, some of which is etched in microprint on the Australian ten-dollar banknote.
As Leisa Caldwell, a passionate brumby advocate who is married to a longtime resident of the area, put it: “Once the horses are gone, the local heritage will be gone.”
“That seems to be the way of the world at the moment,” she told VICE World News. “They're trying to get rid of a lot of our colonial heritage.”
It’s a sentiment that is shared by thousands of others throughout the NSW-Victoria borderlands: that in a bid to preserve native ecosystems, conservationists are stamping out a treasured piece of colonial history. That notion touches on Australia’s ongoing debate around heritage, with the mountain brumbies serving as proxies for the racial, neocolonial tension that still haunts the nation. More specifically, for Swain, they’ve become a token of “the lie that is Australia.”
“Australia is built on myths like a fictitious poem,” he said. “It's just that whole Aussie lack of identity, lack of connected culture… because we don't cherish and respect the very country we live on, or the species that evolved here.”
Ever since Guy Fawkes, the brumby wars have been raging against this backdrop. And in the past few years, things have gotten ugly. What started as a patriotic reverence for the Snowy Mountain brumby, and a vow to protect this last vestige of a romantic colonial legend, has mutated into hostility, tribalism, and militant aggression.
In recent years, social media has given life to communities of brumby advocates, providing a forum for outraged horse lovers and self-proclaimed “brumby warriors” to condemn the culls, dox the culprits, and call for swift and sometimes violent retribution.
While many members of these Facebook groups are merely sentimental animal lovers, it’s not uncommon for posts to spill over into death threats and racial abuse. ‘Brumbylivesmatter’ is a popular hashtag, and those deemed to be in disagreement become the target of ridicule and intimidation. Far-right conspiracies and prejudices, from climate denialism to transphobia and anti-vaxx dogma, litter the comments.
In one of the most popular pro-brumby groups, with more than 20,000 members, VICE World News found numerous posts promoting pseudo science, racism, and homophobia. One post with hundreds of likes claimed that left-leaning politics had led to “transgenderism… normalisation of paedophilia… climate change bullshit, [and a] war on brumbies and Australian cultural heritage.” Another, posted two days after the discovery of the dead horses in KNP, condemned the ISC as “well funded evil bastards, political allies of the LGBT… [and] the greatest threat the high country brumbies will ever face.” Others bemoaned a range of right-wing sore points, from “woke” gender politics to mask mandates and legislation banning gay conversion therapy.
Lanyon is the founder and administrator of several pro-brumby pages. One of those is Snowy Mountain Brumby Sustainability and Management Group, which he launched 10 years ago “in response to what then was an unchallenged and fairly bloody-minded removal of horses from Kosciuszko National Park.”
The 67-year-old describes NPWS as “a rogue government” that he views as “nothing more than an offshoot of the extreme Green Left movement.”
“They’re just doing what they want, which is in keeping with their extreme left ideology regarding horses,” he told VICE World News. “They’ve been after the horses for 30 odd years, and using the same bullshit arguments.”
In a style similar to many of those frequenting his Facebook groups, he repeatedly questioned the credibility of the government’s claims around both horse numbers and the severity of their impact, accusing the NPWS of “misrepresenting the truth” in order to justify their “ideological commitment to zero horse populations.”
This is an argument that has gained traction within the community over the years: that the actual population of horses in KNP has been drastically overestimated as part of a government conspiracy to eradicate the Snowy Mountain brumby. The latest large-scale survey, conducted alongside NSW’s University of New England in November 2020, concluded that there were 14,380 horses in KNP. Lanyon and others claim, without evidence, that anyone truly familiar with the Park knows there are far fewer.
Lanyon is also quick to play down the framing of pro-brumby advocates as “horse-loving extremists,” and distances himself from suggestions that they might commit violence or threaten something as extreme as firebombing a government office. The people he associates with are “extremely anti government, anti National Parks and Wildlife Service, and anti the no-brumby movement,” he says—but they’re not terrorists.
Instead, Lanyon hints at a theory that’s also started circulating among the pro-brumby crowd: that the “supposed” bomb threat was a false flag, staged by the no-brumby movement in order to discredit their opponents and make them seem radical. A way to “change the narrative,” in his words, and steer attention away from the dead horses.
This general idea—that the pro-brumby movement is being wilfully demonised—gained currency earlier this year, when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation released a documentary, titled FERAL. Brumby advocates condemned the film as “sensationalised reporting not investigative journalism,” claiming it was “based on a narrative that Brumby supporters are feral like the horses we love.”
Lanyon is eager to shift the narrative back, dismissing the violent rhetoric being circulated by some members of the pro-brumby community and suggesting that their bark is worse than their bite.
“There are some people that get fairly excited about [the brumby issue],” he admitted, “but by and large we're fairly conservative in our behaviour.”
In any case, the barking seems to be getting louder—so loud, in fact, that one woman recently took legal action to prevent brumby advocates from targeting her with abuse and intimidation. In late August, lawyers at Environmental Justice Australia (EJA) lodged a complaint at the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission to stop a brumby preservation group from racially vilifying Monica Morgan, an elder of the Aboriginal Yorta Yorta people and vocal supporter of brumby culls in Barmah National Park, some 270 kilometres west of Kosciuszko.
“Rather than engage with the substance of the [culling] policy, which is backed by science and being implemented by a government agency, some elements of the brumby preservation group have instead chosen to engage in a campaign of personal attacks and intimidation on Traditional Owners,” EJA said in a statement. “Lawyers at Environmental Justice Australia say this conduct amounts to racial vilification, which is unlawful and… a form of violence.”
“Could things get ugly? Yeah, I reckon. There's some really nutty people in there.”
Swain has experienced similar racial vilification, telling VICE World News “A lot of the vitriol I cop is racism, and for me it seems to be [from] that colonial flag-waving Aussie crowd, that somehow think there were better days in the past—‘the good old days.’”
This is at least partly reinforced by many of the posts in pro-brumby Facebook groups, which are festooned with Southern Crosses—a symbol commonly associated with militant Australian patriotism—and calls to protect the country’s national colonial heritage. Dozens of comments posted in the same groups target Swain with bigoted language based on his Indigenous ancestry, racial attacks that he says now outweigh the death threats.
That doesn’t mean he’s stopped taking the threats seriously, though—especially when the group’s de facto leaders, who Swain says are the “worst of them,” refuse to pull their agitators into line. Nor does he buy into the idea that these people aren’t capable of violence.
“Could things get ugly? Yeah, I reckon,” he said. “There's some really nutty people in there.”
There is, on both sides of the aisle, a collective uncertainty as to how it will all end. The war appears to be at a stalemate for now, with the freeze on brumby culling still in place—but it’s thought to be just a matter of time before it lifts. If and when the shooting resumes, and as more dead horses are discovered in the thawing snows around KNP, there’s a growing danger that things could soon spill over into violence. The situation is a potential powderkeg.
At the time of writing, authorities are still investigating the firebomb threat, with head of NPWS, Atticus Fleming, telling VICE World News in a statement that they are “working closely with the NSW Police and when the offenders are caught, we will expect the full force of the law to be applied.”
“The threat to fire bomb a NPWS office is a criminal act, and should be condemned by all Australians. It is a sad day for NSW when public servants are threatened with violence,” Fleming said, noting that NPWS had employed additional security measures to protect staff. “Threats like this, and the ongoing threats of violence toward NPWS staff on social media, have no place in our society.”
Brumby advocates, for their part, are digging in their heels, demanding a Parliamentary inquiry into the “government sanctioned cruelty” of horse killings in KNP and calling for a new management plan. On the other side of the frontline, conservationists and culling advocates like those from the ISC are also holding their ground, insisting that controlled killing of the brumby herds is imperative in order to preserve the ecological integrity of the Park. Neither side seems confident that the other will budge.
“They're ideologically committed to zero-horse populations,” said Lanyon. “So what they do is try and panel beat together an argument based on whatever suits them. Most of what they say, in our opinion, has very little credibility.”
Swain, meanwhile, suggests “there's no amount of education” that would sway the so-called brumby warriors from rejecting the culls, claiming that “they're immune to the facts.” Trezise makes a similar point. But in any case, he adds, politics shouldn’t get in the way of policy. The culture war surrounding the feral horses has stymied action for long enough.
“The simple reality is, there's a section of the community that will never, ever tolerate lethal control of feral horses [in KNP],” he said. “There is entrenched opposition that is immovable to it. But that can't be the point at which you decide on how to manage a feral vertebrate species that's doing significant damage to really important places.”
“I'm not anti-horse,” he added. “I think they're big, beautiful animals. But they don't belong in some of the most sensitive environments in Australia.”
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