The population ecology of feral horses in the Australian Alps management summary

Prepared for the Australian Alps Liaison Committee
Michelle Dawson, April 2005

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Introduction

From 1999-2002 I studied the population ecology of wild (feral) horses in the Australian Alps for my Doctorate through the Applied Ecology Research Group, University of Canberra (under my maiden name ‘Walter’). The Australian Alps Liaison Committee (AALC) funded most of the field work and many parks staff from across the Alps were involved. In 2005, the AALC commissioned me to summarise my thesis into a version suitable for park managers and this is the result. It provides a synthesis of the work and its key findings. If people are after details of any component of the research, I refer them to the thesis and other references mentioned in the text. There have been numerous developments in wild horse management since 2002, as well as a very large fire. I have not dealt with them here.

This study was the first of its kind in the Australian Alps, and therefore has a broad focus. It stemmed from a need to improve our understanding of this controversial species and aims to provide interested parties with information to determine the best approach to management. It also contributes to broader knowledge on survey techniques for large mammals and horse population dynamics in general and examines brumby-running for the first time. The only previous study of wild horses in the Australian Alps was on their impact in sub-alpine and montane environments (Dyring 1990).

Horses were first introduced into Australia in 1788 (Dobbie et al. 1993). They adapted well to conditions and numbers rose rapidly. Between 1830 and 1850 they increased from an estimated 14 000 to 160 000 largely by natural increase and were first recognised as feral pests in Australia in the 1860’s. Australia has the highest number of wild horses in the world (Dobbie et al. 1993). They occur mostly in remote, usually rugged, semi-arid areas. The largest populations are on unfenced pastoral country in the Northern Territory and Queensland. The major concentration of wild horses in New South Wales and Victoria are found in the Australian Alps (Dobbie et al. 1993).