National Parks Wild Horse Control

About this Item
SpeakersFraser Mr Andrew; Debus Mr Bob; Webb Mr Peter
BusinessMatter of Public Importance


Page: 3853
    Matter of Public Importance

    Mr FRASER (Coffs Harbour) [4.28 p.m.]: I speak today on an issue that has been raised previously in this Parliament, that is, the management of brumbies in national parks in New South Wales. In doing so, I advise the House that I intend to concentrate on the brumby cull that occurred in Guy Fawkes River National Park on 20 to 22 October 2000. The reason I raise this as a matter of public importance today is self-explanatory. The Minister for the Environment, the Director-General of National Parks and Wildlife, Mr Brian Gilligan, and Dr Tony English have all said on numerous occasions that the cull was done in a humane manner. That is something I cannot and will not accept. I put to the House that what has been said by Dr English, the Minister and Mr Brian Gilligan is false.

    I would like to quote to the House from a report issued on 15 November entitled "Report on the Cull of Feral Horses in Guy Fawkes River National Park in October 2000", submitted to the Parliament by Dr English. Dr English is a man of some renown. He is head of the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences, Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Sydney. The report comprises 26 pages but it is interesting to note that the first 20 pages of the report deals with the history of Guy Fawkes River National Park and the brumbies within the national park. The report does not address the slaughter of the brumbies until page 20. Section 75 of the report states:
        The intention was to shoot no horses closer than 300 metres from the river … but when this was not possible the carcasses were later moved away by slinging under the helicopter. Some 40 were moved in this way, these generally being animals that were so poor and weak that they did not move away when the helicopter approached.
    I do not believe that. In fact, the evidence is contrary to what is stated in report. The report continues:
        Four wounded horses were located and shot from the helicopter on the third morning. The fact that one horse was shot twice but not killed, and not located by this process, was obviously at odds with this protocol.
    The protocol was that they were looking at the horses, making sure they were shot more than once—indeed, some of the horses were riddled with up to 25 bullets. The cull numbers ranged from 227 to 616 yet we are still not sure how many were shot. Dr English only looked at 39 carcasses but in his report and in discussions with me he stated that the location of each horse that was shot was global positioning system noted. If that were the case, I believe Dr English and the Government had an obligation to inspect more than 5 per cent. The report basically concludes that the aerial shooting in Guy Fawkes River National Park involved the appropriate technique under the circumstances and that the shooting was carried out in a humane way under approved protocols designed to kill all horses as quickly as possible. I do not accept that these horses were killed humanely.

    As a result of that fiasco, 12 charges were brought by the RSPCA against the National Parks and Wildlife Service. On numerous occasions the National Parks and Wildlife Service had the matter adjourned. It is set down for hearing on 3 July, with witnesses to be called to give evidence to support the RSPCA claim that the horses were killed in an inhumane way. Annexure D refers to the horse that was found three days after the shooting and states:
        Whilst it was assumed that the 2 shots had been fired from a helicopter due to their position on the top of the body, in the absence of bullet fragments it was not possible to prove beyond doubt that this was so. The possibility of the shots being fired from high ground is discussed, but no firm conclusions were drawn.
    Honourable members would be surprised at the anger that wells up in me when I read that statement. Dr English was employed to give an independent report, yet for him to infer, after the National Parks and Wildlife Service admitted that it had shot somewhere between 227 and 616 horses in three days, that someone else had entered the park at that time and shot the horse from high ground, is nothing short of a disgrace. It is hiding the real facts. The report further states:
        The fact that this horse was not killed and then not detected alive in subsequent fly overs could have been due to its colour, which would have made it very difficult to see against the brown landscape. It can also be assumed that the horse was lying down or did not move much due to its wounds, and a stationary animal is always much more difficult to detect from the air than a moving one.
    This is subterfuge of the worst kind, as is what will happen on 3 July. The RSPCA has contacted its witnesses and told them that under section 5 (1) of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act they will not be needed at court because a plea has been entered into. The National Parks and Wildlife Service will plead guilty to one count of cruelty to horses. This is astounding. I ask the Minister to give a truthful explanation about this matter. I believe that almost two years later the National Parks and Wildlife Service has decided that it can plead guilty to a minor offence, and plea bargain with the RSPCA. I know that the RSPCA is happy with the plea, but I am not. There were 12 charges yet the National Parks and Wildlife Service will plead to only one charge.

    The fact remains that this was a barbaric slaughter. Photographic evidence to be produced during the three-week court case would have proved each of the 12 charges and embarrassed the National Parks and Wildlife Service to such an extent that its credibility, which is not very good anyway, would have been shot—to coin a phrase. The National Parks and Wildlife Service inhumanely slaughtered these animals but tried to suggest otherwise, also stating that there was no feed in the park. I challenge the Minister for the Environment and Minister responsible for the Protection of the Environment Administrations Act to prosecute the service for fouling waterways, something that was not done. At the time I wrote to the Commissioner of Police and asked him to lay criminal charges but I did not even receive a response.

    This is a cover-up by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. I commend the actions of the RSPCA. However, it has accepted the plea because it has already spent thousands of dollars bringing the prosecution and having the matter adjourned. The RSPCA is scared that if the matter goes to court the service will weasel its way out by claiming it is an entity, or by some other process, and the RSPCA will lose and have to pay costs. I call on the Minister to direct the National Parks and Wildlife Service to plead to all 12 charges. It should admit its liability and the fact that it botched its attempt to slaughter these horses in October 2000. The truth should be told and the matter should be referred to the ICAC. If the Minister is not prepared to do that, then I will. The subterfuge of this slaughter has been a disgrace. It is a taint on the Minister, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and on Dr Tony English, a man who had great respect in the community. Only by putting all the evidence on the table will the matter be cleared up.

    Mr DEBUS (Blue Mountains—Attorney General, Minister for the Environment, Minister for Emergency Services, and Minister Assisting the Premier on the Arts) [4.38 p.m.]: Unlike the honourable member for Coffs Harbour, I do not propose to canvass the RSPCA's prosecution of the National Parks and Wildlife Service over the culling of horses in the Guy Fawkes River National Park. As all responsible members know, the matter is presently before the courts. The honourable member for Coffs Harbour should be aware that it is inappropriate for the substance of the matter to be debated in Parliament and he would do well to exercise caution in his comments, although, as we know, caution is not one of his strongest points.

    The prosecution has been the subject of careful discussion between the legal teams of the RSPCA and the National Parks and Wildlife Service, which have considered the issue in detail. I urge honourable members to allow the proper legal processes to take their course. There is no doubt that feral horse management in national parks is sensitive and far more complex than the honourable member for Coffs Harbour appears to understand. There are extremely strong feelings on both sides of the debate as to how best to deal with the issue, and the reaction to the Guy Fawkes operation is sufficient evidence of that. Since that operation a huge amount work has been done by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, animal welfare groups, including the RSPCA, environment groups, horse riding groups and interested community members to help find solutions to this very vexed question.

    Whether or not the honourable member for Coffs Harbour is prepared to acknowledge it, it is broadly accepted that feral animals—foxes, wild dogs, cats, pigs, goats and horses—in national parks must be controlled. Feral horses can cause significant environmental damage and there is no doubt that they compete with native animals for scarce food and water. Even worse from the perspective of the farming community, they can carry exotic diseases that threaten livestock, and thus eventually farmers' livelihoods. Feral animals cannot be allowed to remain unchecked in national parks or on any other land tenure. I said after the Guy Fawkes incident that a better way must be found to control these horse populations, and that is exactly what we are doing. Honourable members will recall that I decided to ban permanently the aerial culling of horses in New South Wales national parks. That decision is clearly in keeping with broad community expectations. Other options for removing horses from parks around the State are being examined and trials of appropriate methods have begun in some areas.

    I take this opportunity to inform the House about the wild horse management plan for the Kosciuszko National Park. There has been little management of wild horses in Kosciuszko, and it appears that their numbers have increased significantly over the past 20 years. By the late 1990s they had begun to appear in the alpine areas of the parks—that is, above the tree line. In summer their impact on the fragile alpine environment is obvious. This impact includes the establishment of trails, damage to streams and river banks, water pollution, the creation of wallows, the trampling of bogs and severe damage to native vegetation. Such impact is not acceptable in the most sensitive area of Kosciuszko National Park. That is why the National Parks and Wildlife Service has been working with a community-based steering committee that comprises scientists, a veterinarian and representatives from conservation, tourist and industry groups, to name just a few, since November 2000 to find solutions to the problem.

    On the basis of extensive public consultation, I can inform the House that agreement was reached that the alpine area of Kosciuszko is a unique environment that must be protected from the impact of horses, that the control methods used must be humane for horses, and that management of horses should not be limited to the alpine area but should be extended across the entire park. A draft wild horse management plan was released for public exhibition on 31 May 2000 for a period of six weeks. It proposes that capture and removal techniques using horse riders under contract arrangements be trialled over a period of two years. The National Parks and Wildlife Service has worked closely with the steering committee, and particularly with local horse riders, to begin the process of removing horses.

    The project is seen to have many positive benefits both locally in establishing a partnership of local horse riders, and more widely in promoting methods of managing wild horses that have the support of the wider community. At this stage I can report that the trial was successful in the recent humane removal of 13 horses from the alpine area of Kosciuszko. I have been advised that recent aerial surveys of Guy Fawkes River National Park have revealed that some 150 horses remain in the park. Of course, those remaining horses must be managed properly. Quite simply, a better way must be found to control them and to reduce the adverse effects that they are having, and undoubtedly have had, on the park's environment.

    Mr Fraser: Minor effects.

    Mr DEBUS: That is frankly ridiculous. That interjection undermines any pretence of seriousness that the honourable member for Coffs Harbour might have claimed in raising this issue for debate. A better way must be found to control the adverse effects that horses have had in Guy Fawkes River National Park. That is why I asked the extremely eminent independent veterinary scientist Dr Tony English to prepare a plan of management to reduce the number of feral horses remaining in the park. During community consultation on the heritage value of the horses in the park was raised. I allocated $20,000 to establish a heritage horse working party to carry out a study to investigate the validity of these claims. The study that I commissioned allowed a thorough investigation of the view of many local people that the horses have historical importance.

    The working party comprised interested community members and was chaired by Associate Professor Frank Nicholas, a renowned genetic scientist from the University of Sydney's veterinary science faculty. We obviously required genetic evidence to reveal the historical origins of the horses. The final report of the heritage working party is expected to be available soon. In addition to the heritage study, Dr English—I emphasise that I hold him in the highest esteem—has also recommended a moratorium on the removal of any horses from the park until a heritage study is completed; that the National Parks and Wildlife Service continue to monitor the environmental effects in the park associated with the removal of the horses; and that horses be removed from the park only after consultation with experienced stockmen, veterinarians and the RSPCA.

    The National Parks and Wildlife Service has learned from the community reaction to the Guy Fawkes feral horse cull. It has worked with local communities to formulate practical and widely accepted plans to deal with this serious environmental problem. I only wish that the honourable member for Coffs Harbour would show more interest in devising constructive solutions to what are by any rational measure complex problems. It is not sufficient for him to attempt to score cheap political points for local consumption. This is a complex, difficult issue that other people—including me—are treating seriously.

    Mr WEBB (Monaro) [4.46 p.m.]: Brumby management in New South Wales national parks is an issue of public importance. However, judging from what we have heard in the past few years, this matter of public importance should probably refer to "brumby mismanagement" in New South Wales national parks. Opposition members must challenge the Government about its decisions and performance and oppose its unpopular or unconscionable actions in our community. I commend the honourable member for Coffs Harbour for continuing to raise the slaughter—there is no other word to describe it—of one of Australia's national icons, the brumby, in a national park in his area.

    Controlling feral horses has been a major problem across New South Wales, indeed throughout Australia, for some time. Until very recently government authorities with responsibility for our national parks have been unable to manage the feral horse problem in Kosciuszko National Park. We must acknowledge the cultural and heritage value of these wild horses to Australia. In recent years the Royal Easter Show and the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games restored the brumby to its rightful place in the hearts of Australians and brought it to the attention of people throughout the world. Like the honourable member for Coffs Harbour, I was dismayed by the method that the National Parks and Wildlife Service chose to control the problem of wild horses in Guy Fawkes River National Park.

    The Minister for the Environment referred to the plan advanced by the community based steering committee for Kosciuszko National Park. I applaud Dave Darlington and his team and others who have been involved in putting that plan into operation. Local people Kerry Rayer and Brian Seears, who live south of Dalgety, received some brumbies from Kosciuszko National Park. They quickly socialised these wonderful animals, broke them in and trained them, and soon they will be offered for sale. Another exciting program can and will be used to control wild horses. The Stockwhip Program, a pilot program, has the support of the Premier's Department, the Snowy River Shire Council working group, Corrective Services and the RSPCA. Under the Stockwhip Program low-risk prisoners will capture, train and market brumbies from Kosciuszko National Park. It is a win-win situation: the environment will win, the community will win, the prisoners will win, and the brumbies—an icon—will win.

    Under that program brumbies will not be shot. The Nature Conservation Council does not like the idea. It wants to shoot the brumbies now, before winter. It does not like the idea of using experienced men on horseback—as has been done for almost 200 years throughout our national parks, certainly throughout the alpine regions—to go in and follow, track and capture the brumbies so that the numbers can be managed. It is a major problem. There are 3,000 to 8,000 brumbies in Kosciuszko National Park. I cannot believe for a moment that the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Government or the Minister would condone an aerial program that used indiscriminate shooting.

    There are strict guidelines for the control of kangaroos through the use of rifles. We certainly would not tolerate such methods being used again in relation to brumbies. I fully support the actions that have been spoken about today. The brumbies are an icon; they must be managed. The damage that they cause is arguable and questionable. One of those brumbies was captured and it is being ridden just a few months later. In fact, it is being ridden from Darwin to Adelaide in a fund-raising ride. The ride is not only promoting the Year of the Outback and the Year of the Mountains; it is promoting one of Australia's wonderful icons: the brumby.

    Mr FRASER (Coffs Harbour) [4.51 p.m.], in reply: I was disappointed by the response of the Minister for the Environment to this issue. I have spoken to him privately on several occasions in relation to this issue. I have told him that I do not believe that his permanent ban on aerial culling is an appropriate measure because it would be the best way to cull some forms of wildlife—be it donkeys or horses—in some terrains. The decision was a knee-jerk reaction by the Minister at the time. He said, "Look, I will try to kill this issue, we will ban it". I know that some Coalition members called for a ban, but I did not agree with them. I still do not agree with them. As the Minister said, this is a complex issue. We need to ensure that the culling techniques utilised by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and any other government departments are appropriate to the situation. Banning something carte blanche does not necessarily address the issue.

    The Minister says that there are scarce resources. I admit that there are scarce resources—we all know that. But he treats this issue in a light-hearted manner. He says, "It is before the courts." It is not before the courts. It has never been before the courts because the National Parks and Wildlife Service has kept it out of the courts for the past two years, thinking that people will forget about it. I can tell the Minister that it is not just a local issue. The park is not in my electorate; it borders my electorate. This issue has been taken up by people across Australia. As the honourable member for Monaro said, the brumby is an icon. It has been argued that horses in Guy Fawkes River National Park are descendants from the first Light Horse Brigade horses. They are walers. I think the majority of them were killed in the slaughter. The Minister talked about the damage done by wild horses or brumbies. I pointed out to him that the Australian Magazine of 9 December quotes a fellow by the name of Tim Low, a conservationist. The article states:
        Kill all the brumbies, says Tim Low, with mischievous intent. As a biologist and the author of Feral Future, Low's argument is simple: less than 8 per cent of the mainland...

        According to Low's calculations, the red kangaroo was the heaviest mammal present; now it's the 13th heaviest. Australia has among the world's highest rate of introduced species preying on or destroying the habitats of native animals.

        Low concedes that the brumby does less damage than donkeys and buffalo (which are in much larger numbers) or even foxes, rabbits and pigs. Nevertheless they move in mobs…
    He talked about them muddying, dirtying and fouling river beds. I have photographic evidence. I again challenge the Minister. I can show the House evidence—I have the photographs—of horses dying and rotting, of carcasses in the river. However, the Minister failed to act through the Environment Protection Authority [EPA] and it said it would not happen. I know a fellow from the Casino area who was charged because someone found a dead calf, which had been dead for two days, in a waterway. He was charged by the EPA. I have evidence of rotting brumby carcasses; the calf carcass was not rotting. I challenge the Minister to clean this up. He should give the public confidence in his portfolio and say that he does not have a conflict of interest. I believe he does have a conflict of interest. As the honourable member for Monaro said, the Minister should resign on this issue—he knows what went on, he knows the cover-up that was perpetrated by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, he knows that it is copping a plea to keep the evidence out of court.

    I advise the Minister that I will make sure that this evidence gets publicised. I do not know how I will do it, but I will make sure it goes far and wide. I condemn him as Attorney General and as Minister for the Environment for allowing the National Parks and Wildlife Service to put a plea in on one charge only. I suggest that it should plead guilty to all 12 charges that were brought by the RSPCA. Do not hide behind a future management technique. I commend those management techniques. However, if it were not for this slaughter those techniques would not be in place. The Minister should report his department to the appropriate authorities, ensure that it is prosecuted to the hilt, and not let it cop out on a plea bargain which does not reflect the slaughter and the savagery that was evident in Guy Fawkes River National Park.

    Discussion concluded.