A wild, unhandled lot they are
Of every shape and breed.
They venture out ‘neath moon and star
Along the flats to feed
‘Brumby’s Run’, Banjo Paterson
In the silver light, the brumbies’ plush manes glisten. A soft dusting of snow clings to the thick hair that hangs around their hooves. We pull our car to the side of the road and watch in silence as the band trots down into the still, white valley. There is something majestic about the scene. The hillsides sparkle in the headlights. We could be inside a snow globe.
‘They are Australian?’ my Colombian partner asks me.
‘Yes,’ I reply, but falter.
The horses stop and look in our direction. We feel intensely privileged to be accepted on their land, but soon I remember, it isn’t really their land.
Considering the question, I am reminded of the scrutiny surrounding the brumbies of the Snowy Mountains. I try to explain that these horses are not just blurry forms captured on a phone screen – they encapsulate a debate about responsible land management, cultural history, and the clash of colonial settler stories with those the land might utter if it were allowed to speak.
By the roadside, I explain to my partner that a brumby is a free-ranging, wild descendant of the escaped horses of early European settlers. Last week, I told him about how we shoot kangaroos in some places. I say that today, brumby populations are causing significant damage in fragile environments such as Kosciuszko National Park, with strategies for managing their numbers currently being hotly debated – and he gives me a mortified look.
‘But, they’re so special.’
He isn’t alone in his fondness for the wild bush horses of Banjo Paterson’s poetry. While for some, the brumby is an introduced pest that poses significant threats to Indigenous ecosystems, for others, it is a cultural icon that must be protected.
At a conference I recently attended in Melbourne, Aboriginal author Alexis Wright spoke about the first appearance of black swans in her home country in the Gulf of Carpentaria. She said that local Aboriginal people were not sure what to do with the species, because in their history and culture, the swans lacked a story. An elder wondered if he should shoot the swan and kill it for food, but he recognised something resplendent in the creature, and decided against it. The swans however, were not ravaging the country.
The traditional custodians of the lands of the Snowy Mountains are Ngarigo people, with connections to other groups including Walgalu, Ngunnawal and Bidhawal people. While ruminating on the issue, I wondered what traditional landowners think about the brumbies – whether they have a story for them. For white Australia, the brumbies have a loud story, and it is this story that has largely led to their protection.
Recently, MP John Barilaro proposed new legislation to prohibit brumby culling in NSW, referencing their cultural significance as a primary driver. In June, the bill was passed without amendment, repealing a previous 2016 plan to reduce the population of approximately 6,000 horses by ninety per cent over the next twenty years. The brumby is a remnant of Australia’s stockman history and is deeply embedded in our national imagination, appearing in the work of beloved writers like Paterson and Elyne Mitchell. From a young age, the silver brumby galloped across my dreams. It became a symbol of beauty and wonder. Peter Cochran, a high-country cattleman, says that ‘the horses symbolise freedom’ – but freedom for whom?
At the crux of the matter, I realise that the decision is really not all that surprising: after all, Australia was built on the prioritisation of coloniser interests over everything else. Since early-settler days, our governance has struggled to comprehend a co-existence that is non-hierarchical. I search my mind, but can’t think of another example that better summarises the Anthropocene here: a single species being preserved at the cost of the greater ecosystem for the sake of one segment of the population’s nostalgic attachment.
With brumby populations capable of increasing by twenty percent each year, and with no natural predators, the problem is only going to worsen in the Kosciuszko National Park. The alpine region simply didn’t evolve to deal with hooves. However, as ranger Rob Gibbs says, ‘it’s very difficult for native animals and ecosystems to compete with the romanticism of The Man from Snowy River.’
I explain to my partner that while it might seem cruel, environmental groups have slammed the legislation, stating that it is irresponsible and will lead to greater degradation of the landscape. Experts say that other proposed methods such as relocation will not be sufficient to cope with the rate of population increase, and a failure to cull could result in mass starvation events as has been previously seen in Guy Fawkes National Park. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has even written to the government to express its concerns, stating that the park is home to many species of flora and fauna that ‘exist nowhere else on earth,’ and that the move sets a bad international precedent.
To me, the decision by the NSW Government declares that the cultural significance of the brumby is more important than the looming extinction of species like the corroboree frogs, the smoky mouse, the alpine she-oak skink, and up to twenty species of plants. In the moonlight, I look out over the heath and wonder what the frogs do in the winter. I ruminate on the fact that when species die, stories die too – all those stories contained in strata that existed for eons before whites arrived. Despite the advice of scientists who call for a deeper understanding of the intermingling narratives of the landscape, the decision favours a story that most mirrors our own: a tale of a settler seizing dominion in a foreign place.
My partner and I stand beside our car huddling for warmth and watch as the brumbies fade into the hills like apparitions. I am sad because on a personal level, I am not immune to the deep sense of calm that an encounter with a wild animal brings, regardless of its status in the greater order of good. My partner takes a deep breathe of the cold air.
‘So complicated,’ he sighs.
While looking at the mountains dressed in snow, I listen to the trill of wind through the crackling grass. Our human forms and the five horses that were before us just moments ago become tiny specks on the vast canvas of night – smaller even than frogs, or lizards, or mice. The image stays with me as we get back in the car and continue our journey home to the city, not because of the beauty that we encountered, but because of all that could be lost for the sake of a symbol.