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Aerial shooting of feral horses in Kosciuszko national park begins

<span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

The New South Wales government has begun trialling aerial shooting to reduce the number of feral horses which are destroying fragile alpine ecosystems in Kosciuszko national park.

In November, 270 feral horses were shot during a two-day trial with no reported adverse animal welfare events, after a Senate committee examining the effect of feral horses in alpine regions called for aerial culling to be allowed in NSW. Two helicopters were used and independent veterinarians observed the trial.

According to the government’s October population survey, there were 17,432 wild horses in the park, down from 18,815 last year. But two years ago, there were about 14,380 horses in the park, and in 2016 there were just 6,000.

Related: Failure to manage feral horses causing ‘devastating impact’ on Australian alps, Senate inquiry hears

The state government’s 2021 management plan aimed to reduce the feral horse population to 3,000 by June 2027 by ground shooting, trapping and re-homing. But after this year’s results, the NSW government said aerial shooting would be needed to meet targets.

Professor of terrestrial ecology at Deakin university, Don Driscoll, is pleased the government is “finally taking this step”.

If brumbies are not culled, their population will continue to expand exponentially, which could introduce a major animal welfare issue before a drought period, he said.

“We are going to see mass starvation, which is no way to treat what are essentially domestic animals put out into the wild,” Driscoll said.

“The ecological value of Kosciuszko national park has been seriously degraded, and [aerial shooting] now offers hope that the situation will be reversed.”

Aerial culling is widely accepted as more humane than many of the alternatives, like trapping and transporting over long distances.

Richard Swain, a local Indigenous river guide and honorary associate professor at the Australian National University, said it was “past time that we … accepted the evidence that aerial shooting is the most humane and effective control method to reduce the population”.

A review by the RSPCA and independent veterinarians found aerial shooting conducted by skilled professionals is a safe and humane method of population control, Jack Gough, advocacy director at the Invasive Species Council said.

Related: Feral horses an ‘imminent threat’ that could cause extinction of several endangered Australian species, inquiry warned

“No one likes to see animals killed, but the sad reality is that we have a choice to make between urgently reducing the numbers of feral horses or accepting the destruction of sensitive alpine ecosystems and habitats, and the decline and extinction of native animals,” Gough said.

“Culling by highly trained professionals is the only viable way of reducing numbers and saving the national park and our native animals that live there.”

Angela Moles, a UNSW ecology professor agreed saying “having hoofed animals in mountain land where there were no animals is just disastrous”.

When feral horses are rounded up rather than culled, only a tiny percentage of them are able to be re-homed, and “most of them go through enormous amounts of stress being rounded up, and then put in paddocks and contained for ages,” Moles said.

Rounding up “causes a lot of trauma, and ultimately they are taken to be killed,” Driscoll said.

“The outcome is ultimately the same for the horse, but it takes a lot longer to happen.”

Feral horses are descendants of domestic horses that have been let into the wild continuously over 200 years, Driscoll said.

Related: Police investigate threat to ‘firebomb’ national parks office over Kosciuszko horse cull

They go through cycles of population growth. In weather conditions of consistent rain, like the region has had since 2020, food and water supply for feral horses is ample.

“So they have just increased at a rate that has been enormous,” Driscoll said.

As horses eat grass, they effectively destroy the habitat of threatened native species, Driscoll said. And when accessing water, they cause major damage that leads to a complete loss of vegetation along streams, as well as erosion and channelisation.

“Then you end up degrading these ancient … endangered communities, so they have an enormous impact on the environment.”