Control of feral horses and other equidae
Ratification Date: 01 Jul 2013
The management of feral horses and other equidae populations is considered necessary to achieve fauna and flora conservation goals as well as economic goals (such as reducing competition with livestock for finite food and water resources). Where culling is indicated on scientific assessment of the relative merits, the most humane methods must be employed.
Feral horses (Equus caballus) have their origins in escaped and released domestic horses brought to Australia with the European settlement to provide draught power and personal transportation. With the advent of mechanical alternatives, horses decreased in value and have in some places achieved pest status.
Feral horses occur in many parts of Australia. In the open rangelands areas, horse populations are widely distributed. Aerial surveys estimated the Northern Territory feral horse population at about 265,000 (Saalfeld, unpublished data, 1986-2001, in Dawson et al 2006). In New South Wales and Victoria, the feral horse populations are smaller and more isolated, and there are occasional incursions into the Australian Capital Territory. In the more urbanised areas of eastern Australia, feral horses primarily occur on crown land and these smaller populations are generally the main focus of public and media attention (Dawson et al 2006).
Economic impacts include competition with livestock for food and water, and this impact is especially severe during drought. Feral horses can also interfere with station management, and damage fence lines. Horses are susceptible to a number of exotic diseases, a recent example being equine influenza.
Impacts on the environment include damage to native vegetation (including trampling and changes to the structure and composition of vegetation communities), soil erosion and compaction, competition with native fauna for resources and fouling of waterholes, which also may be more apparent during drought. Areas used by horses during drought are believed to be important refuge areas for many native plants and animals. There are also significant animal welfare concerns associated with overabundant feral horses during drought, due to starvation. A good summary of the known environmental impacts of feral horses is provided in Csurhes et al. (2009), pp 14-16.
Despite the published negative impacts, 79% of respondents in a survey of Victorians did not regard feral horses as a pest animal (Nimmo et al. 2011). This work agrees with findings from a three year social study commissioned by the Invasive Animals CRC that obtained 5,060 responses to questions about pest animals and their management. Feral horses were listed in only about 3% of responses when participants were asked to “indicate up to five animals (from a provided list) that you regard as Australia’s worst pests’ (Fisher et al. 2012). Indigenous people may also have social concerns about horses, with some communities perceiving them as a resource and therefore wanting minimal population management (Dawson et al. 2006). Differing perceptions of feral horse impact and the suitability of control methods in the broader community make management very challenging. There is often public outcry in response to lethal control programs (Nimmo & Miller, 2007).
Many Australians are concerned about the humaneness of feral horse control methods. Management effort across Australia varies significantly due to the varying abundance of feral horses, the different pest status among states and territories, available resources, differing environments or topography, and existence of regional (cross-jurisdictional) management plans.
Available control techniques include trapping and mustering, capture and removal, fencing, and aerial and ground shooting.
Fertility control is not a currently practicable option.
Commercial harvesting may be feasible in some situations (Dawson et al. 2006).
The Feral horse management plan for Oxley Wild Rivers National Park (NSW NPWS, 2006) is a good example of a site-specific management plan. A good summary of the benefits and disadvantages of the various control options is provided in the section ’Horse management methods’ (pp. 14-15). It is important to recognise that other sites in Australia may have vastly different requirements.
The primary concern is for the welfare of the feral horse population being managed, and in the protection of the natural or agricultural values important to the particular area.
Feral horse control is a necessary management practice provided it is humane and justified.
Every situation should be considered on its merits and should involve stakeholder consultation, expert consultation and sound scientific understanding of the impacts of feral horses in the particular environment. Lethal and non-lethal control programs should be well coordinated, planned and resourced, and use of personnel trained and accredited in the chosen control techniques.
The method of control of feral horse populations should be in accordance with a locally or regionally specific management plan that reflects both community views and sound scientific advice.
A model for assessing the relative humaneness of pest animal control methods (Sharp & Saunders, 2008) has been developed to enable the evaluation of methods in use and to allow the most humane methods to be identified based on scientific evidence.
The model examines both: the negative impacts of a control method on an animal’s welfare and the duration of this impact (Part A); and, if a lethal method is employed, the intensity and duration of suffering of the killing technique. The information used to develop the matrix for feral horse control techniques is provided at:
This model has been used to assess the humaneness of a variety of pest animal control methods used in Australia, including for feral horses.
Worksheets to assess the merits of available options are also available on the site currently managed by the Invasive animals CRC.
Following decisions about the choice of method to be employed, all operations should be conducted in adherence to relevant state/territory legislation (including OH&S)
Codes of Practice
Model Codes of Practice have been developed and are available at the following site
Relevant codes are:
- Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Feral Livestock Animals
- Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Livestock at Slaughtering Establishments.
Other relevant policies and position statements
Australian Animal Welfare Guidelines for the Land Transport of Livestock: www.animalwelfarestandards.net.au/land-transport/
- Csurhes, S, Paroz, G & Markula, A, 2009, Pest animal risk assessment, Feral horse, Equus caballus, Biosecurity Queensland, Brisbane.
- Dawson, MJ, Lane, C & Saunders, G (Eds) 2006, Proceedings of the National Feral Horse Management Workshop, Canberra, August.
- Fisher, NI, Lee, AJ & Cribb, JHJ, 2012, A scientific approach to monitoring public perceptions of scientific issues, International Journal of Science Education, Part B: Communication and Public Engagement, DOI:10.1080/09500693.2011.652364
- Nimmo, DG & Miller, KK, 2007, Ecological and human dimensions of management of feral horses in Australia: a review, Wildlife Research, Vol 34, 408–417.
- Nimmo,DG, Miller, KK & Adams, R, 2011, Weeds & Feral Animal Issues & Solutions 20.28, Managing feral horses in Victoria: a study of community attitudes and perceptions, Ecological Management and Restoration, Vol 8, No 3, 237-241.
- NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) 2006, Feral horse management plan for Oxley Wild Rivers National Park, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, Hurstville.
- Sharp, T & Saunders, G, 2004, Model Code of Practice for the Humane Control of Feral Horses. Available from: https://www.pestsmart.org.au/model-code-of-practice-for-the-humane-control-of-feral-horses/
- Sharp, T & Saunders, G, 2008, A model for assessing the relative humaneness of pest animal control methods. Australian Government Department of Agriculture. Canberra. Available from: https://www.pestsmart.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/humaneness-model-pest-animals.pdf
Date of ratification by AVA Board July 2013