Feral Horses in the Cobberas area

Feral Horses also known as Wild Horses or Brumbies are not native to Australia. Horses that run wild in the Australian Alps are descendants of horses released by early European settlers.  While many argue that they have a place in our history and folklore, the simple fact now is that there are too many of them and their impacts on fragile alpine ecosystems have increased dramatically in recent years.  With no natural predators and little or no commercial value, their numbers continue to increase.  More information and discussion can be found at the following link- Resources – Parks Victoria Wild Horse Management Plan

Friends of the Cobberas volunteer - annual photo monitoring Feral horse damage outside fenced exclusion plots

Feral Horse impact monitoring in the Cobberas area - a long term project to gather data on the impacts of feral horses

The Friends of the Cobberas is a very small Friends group looking after a very remote part of the Alpine National Park, known as the East Alps Unit.  The small but enthusiastic group focuses on the Cobberas area which is between Benambra and the Snowy River.  One of the project ideas right from it’s inception in 1996 was to be involved in some monitoring of the impacts of feral horses (colloquially called brumbies) that roam this part of the High Country in quite high concentrations.

The late Ian Smith was the group’s initial convenor and his enthusiasm for this project and his connections with High Country folk, saw the group’s membership grow and funding made available for the project through the Australian Alps Liaison Committee.  It was important that the project be set up with the type of scientific rigour required for the results to be acceptable to the scientific community.

Consultants Kevin Thiele and Suzanne Prober (Ecological Interactions) were  the contractors appointed to establish the Feral Horse Exclusion Plots Project in conjunction with Friends of the Cobberas.  The aims of the project are “to monitor the effects of exclosure from feral horses on floristic composition and structure of favoured grazing areas (grasslands) and on bank condition and disturbance of streams draining these areas”.

Friends used their local knowledge to assist the consultants and Parks Victoria rangers to select two sites in the Cobberas area.  Both sites (Cowombat Flat and Native Cat Flat) are frequented by Feral Horses, but are not grazed by cattle ensuring that impacts could be directly attributed to Feral Horses, not to introduced grazers in general.  Each site consists of 4 replicate pairs of plots, one fenced and one unfenced as well as 4 replicate pairs of stream segments, again one fenced and one unfenced. 

With the initial data collected fences were erected in July 1999 by Parks Victoria with assistance from work crews at Nowa Nowa NRE (DSE).  The Friends group took on the task of regularly checking the plots to ensure fences remain in good condition and annually taking a set of prescribed photos from designated photos points.  From time to time horses damage the fences, leaning in to reach the long feed, so regular visits are required to ensure fences are kept in good condition.  It is beautiful wild country, so no great chore to gather Friends for the visits!

In March 2001, Friends conducting the annual monitoring were devastated to find all the plots at Native Cat Flat had been vandalised with wires cut to all the fences.  A subsequent working bee saw a big turn out of Friends to collect all the dangerous loose wire, fit new wires and strengthen fences.  Much discussion occurred on how to stop this happening again.

The group decided to apply for a Parks Victoria Community Grant for funding to produce and install interpretive signs at both sites to explain the reason for the fences and to demonstrate the co-operation of the various groups involved with the project to date.  As the project had the backing of the Mountain Cattlemen’s Association and Alpine Brumby Management Group as well as Parks Victoria and the Friends of the Cobberas, it represented a wide range of community interest groups.  Funding was successful and the signs were erected in April 2002.  It is with great pleasure that we can report no further vandalism has occurred at either site – public eduction worked!

Educational sign explaining the fences Tunnels of threatened Broad-toothed Rat inside a fenced plot

In January 2003 the Alpine Fire raged through the East Alps.  As the plots are situated on “wet” drainage lines, the flames slowed enough not to burn the fences, although vegetation in some plots was burnt.  The extent of the burn to vegetation in the plots was carefully recorded, so that any affects of the fire could be taken into account in future results.  It has also been noted that the fire has redistributed feral horses through the area resulting in altered concentrations. 

This is a long term project and although from about year two, there were dramatic visual differences between the fenced and unfenced plots, it is expected that changes to the composition of plant species within the fenced plots could take many years.

Although ten years was a suggested period for first monitoring, Friends of the Cobberas received a Parks Victoria Community Grant to fund interim monitoring in year six.   


Monitoring feral horse plots 2005
In February 2005 Ecological Interactions were again contracted to conduct floristic and streambank monitoring.  Blessed with superb weather for the monitoring, this was a fantastic learning opportunity for Friends to ask question and learn from Suzanne and Kevin, how have an exceptional knowledge of flora, fauna and ecology.

We now eagerly await the report on the interim monitoring, although it is expected that results will not be spectacular at this early stage. 

The consultants have indicated that apart from a much greater height of vegetation growth as a result of exclosure, the stream structure and function will show the most striking changes.

The fenced stream segments were significantly shallower with less streambank pugging and slumping than the unfenced (grazed) segments.  They had an indistinct channel with  vegetation cover across the channel and no or little visible free water.  This change to the stream channels if scaled to sub-catchment or catchment level could have implications on the effects of feral horses on hydrology and stream health.

Horse impacts on stream segment outside the fence No horse impacts on stream segment inside the fence

It would be potentially valuable to value-add to the existing plots by embarking on a hydrological study  using appropriate methods to study rates of water flow through fenced and unfenced segments….another potential project!

Friends contact ranger Paula Dower from Parks Victoria, Omeo said “Involvement with this project provides an excellent opportunity to step out of everyday life, spend time the great outdoors and be involved in a worthwhile scientific project.  Congratulations to the Friends of the Cobberas for continued ownership, enthusiasm and assistance with the project.”

In April 2009 Friends of the Cobberas were successful in obtaining a grant for a contractor to replace the aging fences at the Cowombat Flat plots with new fences of a stronger design. Photos from the working bee can be found on the Photo gallery page. The fences at Native Cat Flat were replaced & strengthened in April 2011and again Friends were able to provide the contractor with additional support.

With funding provided by the Australian Alps Liaison Committee and Parks Victoria, it was possible to engage Wild Ecology to conduct full monitoring of floristics and stream structure, now 13 years into this long term project. Structure of the stream and water flows show the most distinctive changes over this period apart from the visual differences inside and outside the fences. 

Wild Ecology Measuring stream characteristics Wild Ecology collecting monitoring data

Our fences generate lots of interest and in 2011 and again in 2013 the Cowombat Flat exclosures were photographed from the air by Geoff Robertson.  These photos show just how intensive the horse movement is around the wet areas in the drainage line where the plots are situated, with the muddy hoof pugging clearly visible.

Cowombat Flat horse exclusion fences (G Robertson) 2011 Cowombat Flat horse exclusion fences (G Robertson) 2013

 

Graeme Worboys and Ian Pulsford included many photos of our Cowombat Flat plots in their 2013 report Observations of Pest Horse Impacts in the Australian Alps. You can download a copy of their report here.

Friends of the Cobberas members visit the plots regularly to check fences and in autumn to take the annual photo monitoring photos.

 

Anyone interested in more information on Friends of the Cobberas or the Feral Horse Monitoring Project can This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

You might like to have a look at the feral horse link on our links page which includes more facts about feral horses in the High Country.