THERE are fears horses will be riddled with bullets and left to die after the Department of Defence ordered a mass aerial cull of brumbies at Singleton Army Base next week.
Animal welfare groups, politicians and community members are lobbying the federal government to find a better way to manage the situation.
Equine aerial culling is illegal in NSW, but the state government is powerless to stop the cull on December 18 and 19 because it will take place on federal government land.
Defence has ordered gunmen in a helicopter to cull the wild horse population that has been living on the land since the 1930s.
Wild horses are traditionally a symbol of history, freedom and rebellion in Australia, but the introduced species are also regarded as an environmental pest.
Hunter Valley Brumby Association president Kath Massey described the planned cull as “barbaric” and “inhumane”.
The association wants aerial shooting to be taken off the table as a way to cull the herd.
“This is taxpayer funded aerial culling, in a state where it is banned,” Ms Massey said.
“It has been proven that you can’t successfully euthanase a fast-moving animal from a moving platform, you can’t do it from a helicopter.
“They say they will not target mares with foals but the foals will not be able to keep up being chased by helicopters, families will be scattered and foals will lose their mothers.”
Hunter MP Joel Fitzgibbon and Defence Minister Christopher Pyne’s offices have been inundated with calls from unhappy voters about the plan.
A spokeswoman for Defence said there were up to 150 feral horses on the land and aerial culling was the last resort to make sure training activities were not impacted.
She said the drought had recently ignited animal welfare concerns and there was not enough food and water to sustain the herd.
“Ground shooting had limited success due to the inaccessible location of the herd,” she said.
“The feral horses pose a risk to members of the public as the horses can access public roads in search of food and water, and impact training activities on the range.”
Ms Massey said in a meeting with Defence earlier this week, there was no mention of animal welfare concern.
When she picked up a foal from the base last month she said there was plenty of feed in the paddocks and the wild ponies looked fit and healthy.
“They thought they could sweep this under the rug before Christmas, hoping nobody would find out,” she said.
“There is nowhere in that area to land a helicopter, so how are they going to know if the animals are actually dead? How can you tell from a helicopter if they are not still alive and suffering?”
Defence said it unsuccessfully tried to re-home the herd in 2014. Aerial shooting is conducted under strict guidelines and shots are aimed at the head or chest, according to NSW Department of Primary Industries’ documentation.
The NSW government banned aerial culling following the shooting of 617 brumbies from helicopters in Guy Fawkes National Park, near Coffs Harbour, in 2000.
The horses had been shot up to eight times in the head, stomach and legs and their carcasses left to rot.
Two marksmen discharged an estimated 3000 bullets from semi-automatic rifles into the herd.
Mr Fitzgibbon said the community concern was understandable.
“Defence needs to do two things - first of all they need to demonstrate that the cull is necessary and if they can do that they need to demonstrate that they've chosen the most humane way of going about it,” he said.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said aerial shooting was inaccurate and inhumane.
“As with any method of wildlife slaughter, families are torn apart, with foals – unable to keep pace with their terrified mothers – orphaned and left vulnerable to starvation, dehydration, and attacks by other animals,” a spokeswoman said.
NSW MLC Mark Pearson, an Animal Justice Party member, also condemned aerial culling.
A spokesman said Defence had not returned calls and a representative would turn up at the department's Canberra base if necessary.
A spokesman for Mr Pearson said the government should be dropping feed to the ponies and considering a different approach.
Defence said any affected foals would be offered to the association for re-homing.
Ms Massey has taken in three foals from the base this year and relies on donations to pay for their food and medical treatment until they can be re-homed.
She said the ponies grew to about 1.2 metres tall and were believed to be descendants of a Welsh mountain pony that was imported in the late 1800s.
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