Ending the reign of hard hooves
Getting cows, deer, horses, goats and pigs out of national parks is proving a very difficult exercise, even though the damage they do is abundantly clear, says Phil Ingamells.
When we were fighting licensed cattle grazing in the Alpine National Park, the cattlemen always asked why we weren't arguing for control of horses and deer.
Deer hunters want a strong population of deer protected in the bush, primarily so they can shoot them. Horse supporters, on the other hand, hold strong to the brumby legends and, understandably, find any plan to take a gun to a horse difficult to comprehend.
Each supporter group, it seems, wants population control to be focused on another group's animal.
Goats and pigs are less fortunate. They have few supporters, so Parks Victoria's management of them has been allowed to continue pretty much without opposition. They are still a problem but their numbers, relatively speaking, are small.
Horses and deer, however, are now in plague proportions in some of our finest national parks. If goats or pigs appeared in those concentrations there'd be widespread public outrage.
Accurate population estimates are difficult. A 2014 survey of horses in the Australian Alps National Parks showed a population of around 9500 all told, with about 3800 in the much troubled eastern section of Victoria's Alpine National Park.
Brumby supporters claim those numbers are an over-estimate.
Measuring deer numbers is a far more difficult exercise, especially for Sambar Deer, which are secretive by nature and tend not to gather in herds. However, a survey of the annual 'deer harvest' comes up with about 60,000 deer being taken by amateur hunters each year in Victoria.
On that reckoning the feral population must be in the many hundreds of thousands at least, and it's still growing.
But population numbers, accurate or not, aren't the best measure of the need for action. The damage they are
causing to natural areas is far more simple to assess, and should be the trigger for population control.
So where do we stand with these two major threats?
Feral horses in the Alpine National Park
Parks Victoria set up a wild horse consultation process in late 2012, with a dedicated scientific advisory panel and a stakeholders' Roundtable Group.
We were represented on the roundtable together with the RSPCA, mountain cattlemen, brumby runners, brumby rehomers and tourism interests. That process resulted in a series of papers from Parks Victoria, outlining the clear damage that horses cause, their cultural relevance, and assessments of various control methods.
It's probably worth stating here that shooting horses has never been the first management option - re-locating horses to farms where they can be cared for would be a great outcome.
Brumby running (chasing horses and roping them, Man from Snowy River style) and hopefully rehoming them was the control method of choice in the 1992 park management plan. But that plan also called for 'other control means' if brumby running wasn't containing numbers.
Those numbers are well out of control today.
As far as we (or Parks Victoria) are aware, no-one has a viable option for getting significant numbers out of the park and rehoming them.
What are the alternatives?
The RSPCA has advised Parks Victoria that Brumby running causes horses great stress.
There are other methods of rounding up horses, such as tempting them into holding yards with salt, but in remote areas that still means a long journey out on rough tracks, with most then sent on a very long road trip to a slaughter yard.
And importantly, horses in the park are often in poor condition, and suffer considerably and die in large numbers in times of drought, fire and heavy snowfalls.
For these and other reasons, the RSPCA has said, 'We accept aerial shooting when performed under strict protocols by highly competent operators, because aerial culling is the best for the horses' welfare and would be most effective in the current situation in the eastern alps where the country is rugged and large scale control is required'.
We accept this advice from the leading animal welfare organisation, but it's not proving very socially acceptable.
Importantly, shooting horses is only an option when humane rehoming isn't practicable or possible.
Victoria's environment minister under the previous government ruled out shooting horses altogether, effectively
stopping any meaningful, humane control program.
However in NSW, where a Wild Horse Management Plan is being developed for Kosciuszko National Park, the minister has defended the scientific evidence of damage to the park, and accepted control by ground shooting (though he doesn't want aerial shooting).
The NSW draft plan aims to reduce the NSW population to two groups of around 300 each.
Because the southern NSW population is linked to the main Victorian population, it is very important that the two state ministers, and the two park agencies, agree on targets and strategies for horse control.
The National Parks Associations of NSW and Victoria have both called for removal of all feral horses from the alpine parks, while retaining a manageable population in adjoining state forest for heritage purposes.
Parks Victoria will finalise its feral horse strategy after the release of the Greater Alpine National Parks Management Plan - due soon.
Dealing with deer
There are around five species of deer in Victoria's parks and forests. Sambar Deer are rife in eastern Victoria, trashing rainforests, wallowing in wetlands at all altitudes, invading farms and causing car accidents - sadly, they have even appeared at the Prom where Hog Deer are already well-established.
Red Deer are trampling through the Grampians.
Even though Sambar are listed as a serious threat to natural ecosystems in Victoria's Flora and Fauna Guarantee
Act, they are simultaneously protected as a game species under the old Wildlife Act. The latter Act can be overridden by park managers, but it sets a psychological barrier to serious control.
The deer 'belong' to the powerful hunting community: they even have people in our parliament as the cattlemen once did. The hunters are claiming to have successfully negotiated access to a further 118,000ha in national parks, potentially limiting safe access for park visitors.
Despite the large number of deer 'harvested' each year, the population keeps growing in size and extent. So far, Parks Victoria has pretty much limited its control efforts to using accredited amateur hunters in a few strategic programs in places like the Prom and Yellingbo. But, any expansion of that volunteer program is limited.
Park managers need the resources to employ professionals in a strategic, ongoing program aimed at removing deer from our most vulnerable areas.
And we need research into biological and genetic controls, and targeted baits, if we are ever going to halt the damage deer do.
This story first appeared in the September 2016 edition of our magazine Park Watch. You can read more stories in our online version, and if you become a member of the Victorian National Parks Association you will receive your own copy in the mail.