Managing feral horses in Victorian Alps

It is because of our passion for all sentient creatures that RSPCA Victoria acknowledges that in some circumstances it is necessary to manage populations of wild animals when they impact other species. This is a very tough ethical equation – allow feral horses to drive native species to extinction while impacting their welfare by disrupting the ecosystem, or employ the most humane method available to manage the population to a less damaging level to support the welfare of all species, including horses, in that environment.

RSPCA Victoria expects that all introduced species that negatively impact the welfare of native animals and their environments, are managed in the most humane, effective and target-specific way available under appropriate proactive government supervised management programs. All introduced species should be treated equally and no single species should be exempted from humane control, as has been the case with feral horses.

Feral horses, along with feral deer, goats and pigs are not a natural part of the Australian ecosystem and can cause severe damage to alpine and sub-alpine environments, including the destruction of habitat critical to many native wildlife and plant species.

The Mountain Pygmy Possum, Northern Corroboree Frog, Smoky Mouse and Broad-Toothed Rat are just some of the native species currently subjected to welfare impacts due to feral horses destroying their habitat, leaving them vulnerable to predation and impacting their food availability. The Broad-tooth Rat – which has lived in the Alps for thousands of years – is now listed as a vulnerable species. There are currently only 2,000 Mountain Pygmy Possums left in the wild. In contrast, feral horses are not native, endangered or at risk of extinction and also suffer from poor welfare when they compete for resources due to their large population numbers. Because of these animal welfare impacts, RSPCA Victoria recognises the difficult but sometimes necessary consideration of one species over another.

RSPCA Victoria supports rehoming of feral horses and passive trapping where there is demand for horses from appropriate horse rescue groups or homes that have the expertise and ability to provide for the long-term care of horses. The problem is there simply isn’t enough places like these. Media coverage in 2019 clearly illustrated the market for horses in Victoria is currently saturated with hundreds of unwanted horses being sent to abattoirs and knackeries. This is further illustrated as Parks Victoria has only received three expressions of interest to rehome feral horses. Therefore RSPCA Victoria can’t see how rehoming could be the principal control method for feral horses, rather, it should be utilised on a case by case basis. Organisations and individuals must be required to demonstrate their ability to not only accommodate the horses but also meet animal welfare standards and those interested in rehoming feral horses can contact Parks Victoria.

The 2019-20 bushfires caused major losses of high-country native wildlife, native plants and habitats which is why management of the impacts introduced animals are having on these ecosystems is now critical. A comprehensive aerial survey across the Australian Alps in late-2019 found a significant increase in feral horse numbers, 2 to 3 times higher than in the previous survey (estimates rising from around 2,300 to around 5,000 feral horses over five years in Victoria).

Based on the evidence of the impact feral horses are having in the Victorian Alps and the relative humaneness of ground shooting RSPCA Victoria supports lethal ground control, using professional shooters with appropriate independent audits, in conjunction with non-lethal control measures.

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