Feral Horse Management Planning - Barmah
Update 22 January 2019
Barmah National Park is home to internationally significant wetlands, rare and threatened species, as well as many significant Aboriginal cultural heritage sites. It is jointly managed by Parks Victoria and Yorta Yorta Nation Aboriginal Corporation (YYNAC).
The Barmah Forest is an international Ramsar (wetland) site, recognised for its importance to wildlife, particularly birds, fishes and other aquatic life. This area includes Barmah National Park and other adjacent Victorian public land.
Parks Victoria has undertaken an extensive community consultation program over the past three years in relation to managing Barmah National Park, and in particular the feral horse population. The Barmah National Park Roundtable Group, commenced in 2012, has provided input at a local level from diverse community groups, experts and other stakeholders.
Following the consultation activities, input was considered by a statewide Parks Victoria Technical Reference Group, comprising scientists, academics, animal welfare representatives and the Traditional Owners from Barmah, the Yorta Yorta Nation.
Working in close collaboration with DELWP and the Goulburn Broken CMA, a draft Strategic Action Plan - Protection of floodplain marshes in Barmah National Park and Barmah Forest Ramsar site, 2018 - 2022 has been developed. It will be presented to the Minister for Environment and Climate Change, the Hon. Lily D'Ambrosio in February 2019 for consideration and subsequent release for public input via the Engage Victoria website.
Acknowledging the Barmah forest as an internationally significant Ramsar wetland, the draft plan focuses on:
- Maintaining and improving hydrological regimes: environmental water flows
- Controlling grazing and impacts of feral horses
- Controlling feral pigs and other introduced animals
- Managing encroachment of floodplain marshlands by invasive plants
Horses in Barmah National Park
Parks Victoria understands there are a range of views on the feral horses in Barmah National Park, and has undertaken research to better understand the social and heritage values associated with these horses. The research, completed in 2014 by independent consultants Context Pty Ltd, included an online survey, and a brief history of the Barmah horses through both interviews and archival research. This study found most horses dated back to release into the park by a private horse trainer in the 1950’s.
Horse surveys undertaken across the park from January 2012 onwards have identified a large feral horse population within the park. Military-grade high resolution Forward Looking Infra Red (FLIR) cameras have been used from helicopters in 2017, 2018 and 2019 that can detect horses through red gum canopy. Based on horses detected across the park in winter 2018, total numbers at that time were estimated well in excess of 500 animals.
The current situation
Currently, the Barmah National Park is under duress from the extreme dry conditions, impacting both native and introduced species that inhabit the park, including feral horses. At the same time, recent releases of water from further up the Murray River in transit to South Australia (for both drinking water and environmental water allocations for the Coorong) have breached the banks at the Barmah Choke on the Murray River and flooded areas of the Barmah National Park.
Satellite surveys have shown that 27% of the park was flooded in November 2018, receding to 13% in January 2019. Both the flooded areas and recently inundated areas have seen high growth of native vegetation and large numbers of feral horses have moved into these areas to feed.
In the early stages of this situation, marginalized feral horses were in very poor condition and, to date, 25 horses had to be put down under strict humane protocols. The number of malnourished horses has significantly decreased over January.
Parks Victoria conducted aerial surveys in the week commencing 14 January to monitor the state of the park, accompanied by a dedicated expert equine vet. This survey found that most horses were feeding within flooded areas or recently inundated areas, with the vast majority being in average to good condition. No animals were observed that required animal welfare interventions.
The feeding of native or introduced animals is not supported under either Victorian state legislation or parks regulations.
Parks Victoria staff are conducting daily patrols across the park, with support of the dedicated expert equine vet. This team is also responding and attending to any distressed horses reported by the public. These staff are trained and equipped to humanely euthanase horses in very poor condition on the spot.
Parks Victoria continues to consult with RSPCA Victoria, key local stakeholders and community members and monitor and review the welfare of the feral horses in Barmah National Park.
No trapping of horses in Barmah National Park has occurred to date or is occurring. Removal of horses, other than for humane purposes, will not take place in the Barmah Forest until the Strategic Action Plan has been released for public input, revised and implemented.