Strategic Action Plan and Feral Horse Management Barmah National Park
Friday 8 February, 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 is working to reduce the major threats to the floodplain marshes within the Barmah Forest Ramsar Site and Barmah National Park. Floodplain marshes are a wetland type that includes Moira grass, only 12 per cent of this vegetation community remains since the site was Ramsar listed in 1982.The decline in Moira grass represents a significant change in the site’s ecological character, dramatically reducing the habitat and food resources available for the wildlife of these wetlands.
The principal factors that have contributed to the decline of Moira grass include: grazing and trampling pressures by introduced herbivores – particularly feral horses, changes to the natural flooding regime from river regulation and encroachment of invasive plant species.
The impacts of feral horses on Moira grass are considered large scale, and long-lasting. Horses degrade the ecosystem through grazing, browsing and trampling of vegetation, dispersing weed seeds, and disturbing the soil, creating openings for weed invasion and enriching nutrient levels. Horses are also known to damage sites of aboriginal cultural significance including ancestral burial grounds.
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.
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
The Plan will be presented to the Minister for Environment and Climate Change, the Hon. Lily D'Ambrosio in late February 2019 for consideration and release for public input in March via the Engage Victoria website.
The current situation
Recently, the Barmah National Park was under duress from extremely dry conditions, impacting both native and introduced species that inhabit the park, including feral horses. At the same time, 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) breached the banks at the Barmah Choke on the Murray River and flooded areas of the Barmah National Park.
This water has receded and the floodplain is drying off. The recently inundated areas have seen high growth of native vegetation, including Moira grass, 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 25 horses had to be put down under strict humane protocols. The number of malnourished horses has significantly decreased since the start of 2019.
Parks Victoria conducted aerial surveys in the week commencing 14 January 2019 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.
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.
Parks Victoria staff are conducting regular patrols across the park each week, 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.