By Martin Gleeson
In the last 10 years nearly 100,000 Irish people have settled in Australia. Most are in the cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane. Their families back home in Ireland keep close contact with their relatives in the ‘Land Down Under’ by using the telephone, Skype and Zoom. Irish people may be perplexed when their Aussie relatives talk about the very controversial subject of brumbies and have probably never heard of these wild horses.
ORIGIN OF BRUMBIES
The first horses were transported by sea from England to Australia in 1788. Initially horses were confined to the Sydney area until settlers first crossed the Blue Mountains and the inland expansion started. Horses were used for travel, for droving sheep and cattle and for general farm work.
The first report of an escaped horse was in 1804. Some horses became wild because the fences keeping them in were not properly repaired and others were released by owners who no longer needed them. Some settlers in Australia found that life on a sheep or cattle farm was too hard for them and they then abandoned their land along with their horses.
During World War I, 130,000 horses were sent overseas with the 25 Light Horse Regiment from Australia. At the end of the war the demand for horses in the military forces declined. Also, the use of tractors and utility wagons among stockmen led to many of these animals being no longer of use and large numbers were released into the bush.
Today, it is estimated that there are about 400,000 feral horses in Australia! When Sergeant James Brumby was transferred from Botany Bay to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1906, he left his horses behind and as a result all wild feral horses in Australia were known as Brumby’s horses. The Aussies love to shorten words, so these horses were called brumbies.
These free-roaming feral horses are all over the continent of Australia, but are mainly in the Northern Territory, Queensland and the Australian Alps in New South Wales. Because only the strongest of the brumbies survive in the harsh outback, they are hardy and more muscular than domesticated horses. The eat grasses and browse on roots, bark, fruit and buds.
The increasing number of brumbies is believed to cause significant damage to riverbeds, streams, bogs, wetlands and soil structures as they ramble about seeking food and water. Ecosystems are trampled on and the native species of flora are threatened with extinction. Many people demand that they should be culled.
In the state of Victoria, the Supreme Court last year allowed the Parks Victoria authority to send in shooters to reduce the number of brumbies causing environmental damage. In some national parks the animals are trapped and rehomed. When young, they can be tamed and given riders.
But talk of culling these wild animals is anathema to many Australians. They believe the brumbies epitomize the spirit and history of Australia, are part of their heritage and should never be shot. Save the brumbies campaigns have been launched and the fight between the tow opposing sides is likely to last for many years. The brumby can be a heated topic of conversation.
Noted for having written ‘Waltzing Matilda’, now called Australia’s unofficial national anthem, ‘Banjo’ Patterson wrote extensively about the outback where he grew up. His most famous poem ‘The Man from Snowy River’, written in 1890, starts like this:
‘There was a movement at the station, for the word has passed around
That the colt from old Regret had got away,
And had joined the wild bush horses – he was worth a thousand pound,
So all the cracks had gathered to the fray.’
‘Banjo’ Patterson’s ‘wild bush horses’ were of course brumbies and 130 years later they are still running wild and causing controversy in Australia.