Credit: Paul McIver
A mother brumby and foal nuzzle in a grassy field.

Brumbies: victims of history’s choices and today’s actions.

Through no fault of their own, Australia’s wild horses find themselves at the centre of a contentious debate. Many will face a cruel death – unless things change.

Animals Australia

Animals Australia team

Last updated July 5, 2024

The debate surrounding brumby killing in Australia ultimately comes down to the desire to protect animals from harm and suffering – one on hand, to protect wildlife and their natural habitat, and on the other, to spare horses living in the wild from cruel deaths. 

On each side of the debate, animals are lumped together. But every single one of them is a sentient and sensitive being. 

To forge the path to a kinder future for animals and the land we share, solutions to environmental and ecological challenges must be considerate and compassionate. After all, all animals – regardless of how they are categorised or what they are labelledthink, feel, and have the capacity to suffer. 

Brumbies aren’t here by choice – humans brought horses here

It is important to remember that horses exist in the Australian wild because humans brought them here.

Known as ‘brumbies’, they are descended from horses who were sent across seas over 200 years ago to be used for transport, labour, and utility work. Soon after colonisation, some horses were either deliberately released or escaped and established themselves in the wild.

Like most introduced wild animals who are now villainised and labelled as a ‘pest’, brumbies were originally brought to Australia for human gain – and now the descendants of these sensitive animals are paying the ultimate price.

An old stamp (c1986) for 33c with Australian brumbies pictured.
A hazelnut brumby standing in tall grass.

Throughout history, brumbies have been revered by many for their beauty, their cultural and historical significance, and for being living symbols of freedom. Today, many people are shocked to learn about the cruel treatment of these animals during ‘population management.

Now, they’re being chased and shot from helicopters

The methods used to kill horses living in the wild are far from ‘humane’. They may be rounded up and trapped before being shot, transported to slaughterhouses, or pursued and shot from helicopters. Aerial ‘culling’ has not been an authorised method of killing wild horses in Australia for over 20 years, but this cruel killing method has recently recommenced.

In 2000, horses in Guy Fawkes River National Park were severely impacted by bushfires, and a decision was made by the NSW government to shoot them. Over 600 brumbies were killed. Though a review of the shooting found the killing was carried out ‘appropriately’, several horses were found alive days after being shot, demonstrating that even when conducted in a way that the government considers appropriate, animals can be left to die slow and agonising deaths. The distress and anger of the public led to the end of aerial shooting as a ‘control method’ for brumbies – until now.

Shooting horses from the moving platform of a helicopter is not only cruel but extremely risky as terrified horses try to flee across the mountainous terrain. Horses who are not immediately killed may escape, only to endure prolonged suffering. Unweaned foals can also be left orphaned, only to succumb to predators or starvation.

Why are brumbies being killed?

In various regions across Australia, brumbies have been categorised as a ‘pest’ or ‘invasive species’, particularly where there are populations of threatened native animals and sensitive habitats. Brumbies are also considered to be a potential threat to agricultural interests in some areas, seen as ‘competing’ with farmed animals for grazing land. Despite the fact that farmed animals are ‘introduced’ animals too, and the clearing of land for grazing is one of the biggest threats facing wildlife.

Bred into the food system only to be killed, the number of farmed animals in Australia far outweighs the estimated number of brumbies. With swathes of native habitat being destroyed to graze farmed animals, it would be remiss not to look at the role animal agriculture plays in jeaporadising the future of Australia’s native animals.

Brumbies in Kosciuszko National Park

Kosciuszko National Park – the largest national park in New South Wales (NSW) – has become home to the largest population of brumbies in the country. The government has set a target for reducing the population to 3,000 by 2027. Though concerns have been raised regarding the counting methodology, there are an estimated 17,432 horses currently living in the region, meaning many of these horses are set to be killed. 

Over just two days of the recent preliminary killing ‘program’, 270 horses were shot – just 43 of these animals were inspected by vets on the ground. The rest were ‘assessed’ by vets from the helicopters, and it isn’t hard to imagine how challenging that would be given the distance, the movement of a helicopter and the mountainous terrain of the area.

While debate continues about the impact of brumbies on native animals and ecosystems, the state government has simultaneously allowed the Snowy 2.0 Hydro Scheme project in some of the rarest sub-alpine habitats in Australia. The construction will ‘disturb’ over 1,600 hectares of the region, and destroy hectares of habitat including that of threatened species

“To put it in context, that’s the equivalent of saying that we’re going to clear fell all of Sydney Harbour National Park, plus all of Lane Cove National Park, plus all of Kamay-Botany Bay National Park, plus all of Georges River National Park, plus Towra Point Nature Reserve, and a sprinkling of smaller nature reserves.”
– Gary Dunnett, Executive officer of the National Parks Association

That this hydro project was even considered is deeply concerning in an internationally renowned conservation reserve – especially while horses are being chased and shot in the name of ‘protecting’ the habitat.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

A brumby family in the Australian country.
Image credit: Paul McIver
The world could look quite different if we relax cultural beliefs about “belonging” and nativeness.
Erick Lundgren, Adjunct Lecturer, Queensland University of Technology

Addressing habitat destruction with less suffering

Australia’s wildlife is suffering greatly, and the reasons boil down to one key thing: human activity.

When native animals are being pushed further into smaller pockets of habitat, the ‘everyday’ pressure of simply trying to survive in an increasingly challenging environment is amplified. So, shifting towards a more sustainable food system, re-foresting space for wild animals, and connecting land that we’ve fragmented with ‘green corridors’ are some of the most powerful actions that can be taken to meaningfully help wildlife in the longer term.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

An aerial view of dry Australian outback with hundreds of cattle.
Globally, our food system is the primary driver of accelerating biodiversity loss, as habitat is destroyed to convert the land to grazing pasture for farmed animals, or crops to feed farmed animals as well as humans.

What is Animals Australia doing to help brumbies?

It is understandable that many caring people are shocked upon learning about the looming threat to Australia’s wild horses. Perhaps even more shocking is the fact that brumbies have little legal protection from suffering.

Australia’s animal protection laws fail to protect the vast majority of animals in this country from even the worst suffering. Inadequate current laws and regulations often serve to protect and perpetuate systems of abuse – not the animal victims. This is why it’s completely legal to confine mother pigs to cages so small they can barely move, or condemn hens to battery cages, or conduct invasive surgeries on farmed animals with no pain relief.

When opportunities arise for legislative reviews, such as various state animal welfare acts or industry Codes, we submit our strong opposition to, and recommendations against, unnecessary, inhumane and lethal ‘population control’ methods.

We’ve made numerous detailed science-based submissions to state government inquiries, representing the myriad species subjected to inhumane practices, cruel procedures, and ‘control methods’ simply because of the way those animals have been classified (such as farmed animals, ‘ferals’ or ‘pests’). Thankfully, there are many voices speaking up on behalf of wild horses, including the Animal Justice Party, who are campaigning to end brumby slaughter. Animals Australia advocates for all animals to live free from cruelty and suffering. We will continue to do everything in our power to create meaningful and long-lasting change through legislative representation and conscious-shifting awareness campaigns.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

A brumby family sticking closely to one another in the Australian Alps.
Horses are herd animals who are highly social, form strong bonds, and feel safest together in their group.
Image credit: Paul McIver

To forge a kinder future, we need to shift our thinking

To mitigate the potential effects of brumbies on the environment and native wildlife a sustainable, ethical approach must be created; a way forward that ensures the well-being of both the existing brumbies and the ecosystems in which they live.

As long as introduced wild animals are scapegoated, and discourse around their ‘control’ serves as a distraction to the broader issue of human land use, particularly animal agriculture and its impact on native animals – the suffering of all wild animals, introduced or otherwise, will continue.

Through comprehensive research, resource investment, and careful planning, current environmental and ecological challenges must be met with solutions that are compassionate and considerate to all.