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Horses for courses not beaches

Horses gallop along the soft sand at the top of the beach and base of the sand dune, eroding the dune but also disturbing the prime habitat for the beachnesting Hooded Plover. Photo: Chris Smyth

Horses gallop along the soft sand at the top of the beach and base of the sand dune, eroding the dune but also disturbing the prime habitat for the beachnesting Hooded Plover. Photo: Chris Smyth


Published 14 September 2016

Chris Smyth visits Belfast Coastal Reserve and reports on its horse problem.

The odds are definitely against the Hooded Plover if commercial horse training is allowed to continue on the beach and sand dunes of the Belfast Coastal Reserve.

Stretching between Port Fairy and Warrnambool in the state's south-west, the reserve was established in the 1980s to protect the local flora and fauna, including migratory birds, help stabilise sand dunes and support low-intensity recreational uses such as walking, swimming, boating and picnicking.


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Commercial use just wasn't in the mix, nor should it be.


Hoodie central

The area is considered 'hoodie central' by birdos, providing habitat for up to 52 Hooded Plovers (>9% of the species' Victorian population) and having one of the highest densities of breeding birds in eastern Australia (at least 21 pairs).

Hoodies nest in shallow scrapes on the high side of the beach between August and March, and are vulnerable to attacks by dogs and feral animals, and disturbance from people - and now horses. They are listed as threatened under national and Victorian laws.

For many years the use of the reserve by horses was minimal but recently there has been an invasion by commercial horse trainers. This is how Moyne Shire Council Environment Officer, Robert Gibson described horse activity to his council in March 2016:

'Reports and officer observations confirm up to 20 horses are working on the beach at any one time with training occurring on the beach on a daily basis, including weekends, from sunrise until about 10.30am. However, a resident reported racehorses on the beach at about 4pm on 10 February 2016. Council officers have observed horse trucks, horse floats and vehicles blocking access\ to the boat ramp and making access to the car parking areas difficult with up to 12 horse trucks and floats using all of the available car parking. Horses then access the beach from the boat ramp causing the sand to become loose and difficult to drive on when launching and retrieving a boat. Horses are also using pedestrian access tracks to enter and leave the beach, increasing the risk of a serious injury arising from a horse versus pedestrian incident.'


Signage vandalised in the Belfast Coastal Reserve.

Signage vandalised in the Belfast Coastal Reserve.



There are increasing reports of recreational users of the reserve being bullied and intimidated by trainers - I was threatened with legal action if I were to publish images I had taken of one commercial horse trainer riding along the beach, although it is entirely legal to photograph such activities in a public place.

Vandalism of signage aimed at educating people about protecting hoodies is also occurring.

The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) and Parks Victoria have been conducting consultation with various community groups and the commercial trainers - the South West Owners and Trainers Association - on what to do about the horse problem.

There is great concern in the local community that the agencies will try to legitimise what is an unauthorised and inappropriate use.

At the time of writing there were reports that the agencies were to recommend the licensing of commercial horse trainers in Belfast Coastal Reserve. There were also indications of some new regulations, seasonal closures at Levys Point and Rutledge's Cutting, and the transfer of horse training from Killarney Beach to East Beach at Port Fairy.

All of this is just shifting the problem, not solving it. This would likely result in the loss of hoodies from sections of the Belfast Coastal Reserve and continue to cause other environmental and social impacts.

Commercial horse training should be removed from the reserve and the racing industry should establish a purpose-built facility elsewhere.


Other threats

But the problems for the Belfast Coastal Reserve don't end with horses. Like many other parts of the coast, it is beset by fragmented management (Parks Victoria, Moyne Shire Council and City of Warrnambool each manage separate sections of the reserve), unleashed dogs, illegal camping and off-road vehicle use, sand dune erosion, feral animals and weeds.

It is not just the hoodies that are under threat. There is other wildlife, Indigenous community cultural sites, and the use of the reserve by walkers, swimmers, surfers and anglers.

In the VNPA report, The coast is unclear, it was recommended that the reserve become a coastal park under the management of Parks Victoria, with a set of regulations that provided rangers with the authority to implement the objectives of a new management plan (there are no specific regulations for the reserve, which leaves rangers with little power to manage anything).

At the time the report was prepared, the use of the reserve by commercial horse trainers was limited. But with one of them winning the 2015 Melbourne Cup, putting much of the win down to training on the Killarney Beach sands, many more are now using it.

Of course, changing the status of the reserve and preparing a management plan will take time, of which the hoodies have very little. Necessary and urgent short-term actions include refunding the Summer Ranger position (it's been defunded), which has been very successful in educating the community about the plight of hoodies, and gazetting regulations specific to the reserve to reduce the immediate threats.


Rezoning needed

The VNPA is working closely with Birdlife Australia, the Belfast Coastal Reserve Action Group and others in the local community. As part of that work, we have recently requested the Moyne Shire Council to rezone the land within the Belfast Coastal Reserve.

For reasons known only to the council, the reserve is zoned for farming, even though other public land along the foreshore within the shire, and in the adjoining City of Warrnambool and the remainder of the state, is zoned either Public Conservation and Resource Zone or Public Park and Recreation Zone.

Our request seeks a rezoning to Public Conservation and Resource Zone. Otherwise, the future for the reserve could be its conversion to crops and livestock grazing.

Resolving these issues is a nature conservation test for the new environment minister, Lily D'Ambrosio.

Let's hope she does the right thing by the hoodies and the local community and not weaken coastal protection by giving into the racing industry. At a time when the government is reforming marine and coastal laws, failing to do this would indicate that the reform could simply be window dressing and make little if any difference on the ground.


Take action

To express your concerns about the impacts that commercial horse training is having in the Belfast Coastal Reserve, please contact:

  • The Minister for Environment
    The Hon Lily D'Ambrosio
    Level 36, 121 Exhibition Street
    Melbourne VIC 3000
    E: lily.d'
    P: (03) 8392 2100


More info

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.

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