Vernon Wright

Wild horses

Once hunted to the point of extinction, the Kaimanawa wild horses now thrive in the harsh high country of the Desert Road. Ironically, their rapidly increasing numbers pose a threat to the fragile native plants of the area. In the developing ecological tussle the horses are again in the firing line.

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Some forty years ago wild horses roamed in their thousands across the central North Island, from Putaruru in the north to Karioi in the south, and out towards the Kaingaroa Plains in the east. In more recent years their numbers were decimated by amateur hunters who slaughtered them for sport, by people who shot them and sold their butchered limbs for processing into pet food, by rodeo and other domestic users, by the shrinking of their range due to encroaching farmland and forestry, and by natural attrition.

By 1979 their numbers were down to an estimated 174 and their range was constricted to approximately 50,000 hectares that constituted the NZ Army’s training ground in the region of the Moawhango River headwaters, near Waiouru, and some adjoining land to the north, east and south.

They had de facto protection from the Army as a result of restricted public access to the military area; indeed it is clear that they preferred to take their chances with artillery practices rather than with the general public and its amateur gunslingers. But some poaching continued even on Army land, and does so to this day.

In 1981, facing almost certain extinction, the horses were declared protected animals.

The area the horses inhabit in the central North Island is known generally as “the Desert Road” and it rouses strong feelings of like or dislike. For people who prefer routinely lush scenes of bush and lake, or the undulating green tidiness of pasture, the Desert Road is anathema, arid, colourless and vaguely menacing.

There are others, a minority perhaps, who see it as an area of exceptional, fragile beauty and intrigue, carpeted by the soft gold of the red, silver and hard tussocks as they are combed by the cool prevailing winds blowing in over the Tongariro volcanoes a few miles to the west.

The country is as extreme as the reactions it produces, an area of contradictory landforms and vegetation which have no parallel in New Zealand, where the rivers apparently run the wrong way through gorges and where jagged peaks caused by tectonic upheaval are suddenly, astonishingly, interspersed with huge grassy plateaus at up to 1500m.

This strange, brooding landscape, much of it administered by the NZ Army and often referred to as a “wasteland”, is at the heart of a developing ecological conundrum. The fact that the wild horses are now protected by law has resulted in a burgeoning of their numbers. In the last seven years the herds have been increasing by about 20 per cent a year. The latest census, which was conducted by the Army in April 1988, identified 760 animals.

This increase has led to a perceived threat to ancient native flora in the region and has raised thorny political questions of management of a protected but exotic species, of ownership and liability.

It is easy to see the developing scenario as a test to the will and direction of the Department of Conservation, and a challenge to those vested political, commercial and scientific interests in the horses and the unique habitat they occupy.

Some of the questions raised are:

  • How many horses can the Moawhango River headwaters area support without unacceptable environmental damage?
  • What is the effect of the horses grazing and hoof damage on indigenous plants, some of which are extremely rare?
  • If the horses extend their grazing territory because of their increased numbers, where will they increase to?
  • Who is legally responsible for the horses?
  • Are the horses worth saving?
  • If they have to be culled, what is the best means of doing this?

The central issue is this: the horse herds are unique, but so too are some plants in the area unique, and a living record of New Zealand antiquity. If one has to give way to the other, which should it be?

In his book New Zealand Wild Horses, Harvie Morrow reports that the first horses in New Zealand were landed at Rangihora, Bay of Islands, by the sailing ship Active on December 23, 1814. They were brought by the missionary Samuel Marsden as a gift to the Maoris from Governor McQuarrie of New South Wales. The first military horses arrived in Wellington in 1840, followed soon afterwards by the landing of the first thoroughbred stallion, by name of Figaro.

Nearly all recent research tracing the historical origins of the central North Island herds has been conducted by amateur enthusiast Mr R.A.L. (Tony) Batley, whose family have farmed in the Moawhango region since the 1860s. He himself learned to ride on a previously wild horse that had been captured and broken in by a rabbiter in the Kaimanawas in the early 1920s.

In the central North Island a horse was given in 1844 to the chief Te Heuheu’s son by Tamati Waka Nene of Hokianga. The horse was shipped from Hokianga to Tauranga and taken inland to Lake Taupo. (Te Heuheu was in 1886 awarded the peaks of the three mountains, Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe, by the native land court. He presented the area, amounting to some 2600 hectares, to the government as the nucleus of what became the Tongariro National Park. It was later increased by purchase to some 61,000 hectares.)

The first record of a horse in the area adjoining Ruapehu was in 1850, when an animal was brought over what is now the Taihape-Napier road from Hawke’s Bay.

During the land wars a number of horses escaped from the armed constabulary and these joined up with escaped Maori-owned animals to form the nucleus of a feral herd.

However, perhaps the most significant event in the genetic make-up of the horses occurred in 1858 when Major George Gwavas Carlyon established his sheep station in Hawke’s Bay. Carlyon imported thoroughbred Exmoor ponies and crossed them with local horses available at the time. The result was a small breed known as the Carlyon pony which had a reputation for sure-footedness and was sought-after in Hawke’s Bay and elsewhere.

When Carlyon died in 1875 his breeding programme was taken over by the Government’s Land Purchase Commissioner, Sir Donald McLean, owner of Maraekakaho Station. McLean imported two Welsh stallions, Dinarth Caesar and Comet. He crossed these over Carlyon’s Exmoor-cross ponies and produced the breed known as Comet, named after one of the Welsh stallions. The Comet became well-known in both New Zealand and Australia as a sturdy, sure-footed horse, made up as it was of the two main lines of British wild ponies, the Welsh and Exmoor, the latter of which is regarded as the most primitive of British breeds.

Shortly before his death in 1877, just a couple of years after Carlyon’s death, McLean took a stallion and some mares up on the Kaingaroa Plains and released them. This action introduced the Comet breed into the growing feral herd.

Tony Batley’s grandfather first saw wild horses in the Kaimanawas in March of 1876. Some evidence that the Comet breed had taken was provided in 1883 when the explorer Kerry Nichols obtained a horse which had been captured on the Kaingaroa Plains. He described it as of about 15 hands, an iron-grey colour with good points. It seems the grey legacy of the Welsh Comet, as well as the bay from the Exmoors, had been passed down to the feral herds that in recent times have thrived in the high rough country of the southern Kaimanawas.

To scientists and horse fanciers alike the most exciting feature of the feral horses is that they have remained free of modification by controlled breeding for at least 112 years. They have probably retained characteristics that were available in horses last century but which have been bred out over the years in controlled environments. The Kaimanawa horses may therefore be a unique species, having evolved naturally from the Welsh and Exmoor-cross strains and developed at altitudes of up to 1500 metres in an ecological area that possibly has no equivalent on earth.

The feral horses are larger in stature than their pony forebears, and this has almost certainly come about from occasional releases into the wild of farm hacks and military horses. Tony Batley believes, for instance, that there has been a marked increase in the stature of the horses since 1941 when a strangles epidemic swept through military horses at Waiouru. (Strangles is an infectious, often fatal catarrh in horses which results in pneumonia or other respiratory problems. Horses these days are routinely vaccinated against strangles.) The horses were released. Some of them undoubtedly died but others would have survived and joined the feral herds.

There is little evidence of distinct adaptive characteristics in the horses over the years. There have been claims of a sway-back development, but others say this is more likely to be a visual effect caused by skin stretched to cover a distended belly. This in turn is caused by the fact that the horses’ main diet is tussock, which has a low nutritional status. The horses must eat large quantities of tussock in order to extract the nutrition they need. A common misapprehension of visitors is that many mares seem perpetually in foal, but the distended bellies are more often a result of feeding patterns.

Some people have claimed the development of a large hoof size, but others, including Tony Batley and Dr. Robert Holmes, an animal behaviourist at Massey University, say there is observational evidence that the hoof size may actually be smaller than usual for animals of about 15 hands.

Whatever the arguments may be for and against the development of adaptive characteristics, the possibility that the animals may constitute a unique gene pool remains the major attraction. In 1978 the horses were registered with the Food & Agriculture Organisation’s index of feral breeds. Ironically the horses at that stage were not protected and were being systematically slaughtered by pet food poachers and hunters.

As the feral herds proliferated so they came increasingly to be seen as pests, an impediment to development of the central North Island region, and moves were undertaken to get rid of them. It was understandable, says Tony Batley, that horses should have been removed from certain areas. Along the Taupo-Napier road, for instance, with the development of the Kaingaroa Forest, horses came to constitute a significant traffic hazzard. People were being injured and cars written off. As Department of Conservation regional officer Bill Fleury points out, horses can cause nasty accidents because their main body weight is up high. When hit by a car they tend to come straight through the windscreen. One of Tony Batley’s neighbours actually had a horse land on the roof of his car as he drove through a cutting on that road.

Similar events began to occur in the Tongariro area when construction began on the hydro scheme there. The sides of the National Park Taupo Road were planted with clover to combat pumice slips, the clover attracted wild horses and a number of traffic accidents resulted. In addition, horses were discouraged because Tongariro National Park was reserved for indigenous flora and fauna, and hunters were encouraged to exterminate the horses as well as deer and other feral animals. It has been reported that the public responded with “frightening enthusiasm” to this invitation to kill. The bloody slaughter formed the background to the NZ feature film Wild Horses, produced by John Barnett in 1981.

A few horses remained in the National Park area until 1976, and the last horse was removed from Karioi in 1977. What was left of the once-great herds retreated to the eastern side of the Desert Road, the Moawhango River headwaters, where public access was, and is, curtailed by the Army.

The horses were in serious trouble. In November 1978 four horses were found shot in the back of the head at Motumatai, a private conservation area belonging to Tony Batley which lies to the north-east of the Army country. Three months later 11 carcasses were found nearby. All the horses had been shot in the back of the head, indicating indiscriminate slaughter from the air, probably from helicopters. These were being used for deer recovery in the area, but the shooting of horses was a new development.

A Tongariro Park ranger, Herbert Spannagel, called together a few people to ponder the apparent imminent demise of an animal which was of significant historical interest but which was now regarded as a pest and was being hunted to extinction. Present at the meeting with Spannagel were Tony Batley who, along with another of those present, Jack Dillon, was active on the Kaimanawa Forest Park advisory committee. Dillon had been a president of the NZ Deerstalkers’ Association, as had the other person present, the late Harvie Morrow, a wild horse wrangler since 1915 and author of the book New Zealand Wild Horses.

Their meetings were the forerunner of the Kaimanawa Wild Horse Committee, an ad hoc group formerly organised by the NZ Forest Service which now meets at Waiouru under the auspices of the Department of Conservation. The group includes a landowner, scientists and Army staff as observers, as well as DOC officers as members. It is this group whose recommendations will largely decide the fate of the horses.

The committee has been a bit slow in coming to grips with its subject. It is only now, 10 years after its formation and seven years since its successful campaign to have the horses declared protected under the Wildlife Act, that it has commissioned the research necessary to provide the sort of information that it will need to make crucial decisions about the future of the horses and their environment.

To date the only systematic survey of the Kaimanawa feral horse herds has been that carried out at the re-quest of the committee over three weeks in February 1979, by one post-graduate and three undergraduate students from Massey. It is a small irony that the study, which was supervised by committee member Dr. Robert Holmes, of Massey, was conducted in response to worries about the declining numbers of the horses. Now, the need is for research which will assist management decisions about a herd rapidly increasing in number.

The Massey survey was limited by time, by difficulty of transport and communication and by the fact that it was restricted to the Motumatai conservation area. This meant, for instance, that there were no observations of horse groups on Army land, which is where most of the animals live.

Even so, it is interesting that the Massey group’s recommendations for future management are based on what is seen as the need to ensure preservation of the feral horses, and for much the same reasons that exist now, nearly 10 years later. These reasons are summarised thus:

  • The conditions under which the horses live are unique in the world.
  • Valuable comparisons can be made between these horses and groups of feral equids such as free-living zebra, New Forest ponies Assateague ponies and wild mustangs.
  • There may be physical differences between the Kaimanawa and domestic animals as a result of adaptation to survival in their unique environment. These differences may be of special note with regard to parasitology and nutrition.
  • Behaviour which has evolved to enable survival may enable assessment of abnormal or pathological behaviour in domestic animals.
  • A genetic resource selected by natural rather than artificial means may have value as a future source of traits associated with hardiness and agility.
  • These animals have historical value as the remnants of the once-large groups of horses in the central North Island.
  • They have an intrinsic aesthetic value.

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It is the Army which has been prodding the Kaimanawa wild-horse committee into action. The officer commanding the Army Training Group at Waiouru, Colonel Bret Bestic, says the committee hasn’t been examining its “Doomsday options”. Armies of course are in the business of Doomsday scenarios and in the matter of the horses this one is pretty obvious: if the horses are increasing rapidly in number (they are), and if they are mostly on Army land (they are), and if they’re protected (they are), then something has to give.

Bret Bestic believes it is his army that makes it possible for society to make the sorts of democratic decisions—about horses if necessary—that it needs to make. But at the same time he knows that the Army would not fare well in any public relations battle over the horses. If, for instance, numbers of them started starving because of pressure on available food on Army land, the Army would probably be blamed.

Similarly, if animals started wandering across the Desert Road (at present they treat it as a natural boundary) and there was a nasty accident, the Army would probably be asked what business it had allowing horses to stray from its property and endanger lives.

The horses and the Army are historically linked. It could be argued that their association goes back to last century with the release of constabulary and military horses into the wild, and up to and including the last major release of horses during the 1941 stangles epidemic at Waiouru.

A further irony however, has a potentially dramatic implication for the Army: it is that the Army may be the legal owner of the horses.

That connection came about in the 1960s. Just as the range of the horses was dramatically reduced by the Tongariro hydro development, so did the same scheme reduce the Army’s training range. The creation of Lake Moawhango by the building of the Moawhango Dam took up a large chunk of Army territory.

The land loss was greater than the area of the lake, however. The Army’s safety requirements for live artillery practice will not permit shells to land within 1000 metres of non-Army territory. In addition, with an artillery shell there is a danger radius of 250 metres around it. Thus no artillery is fired within 1250 metres of the Desert Road, for instance, nor for a 1250 metre swath around the circumference of the lake.

The creation of the lake, its potential as a fishing and picnic spot, plus the presence of the horses was resulting in public pressure for increased access to the area.

Col. Bestic: “If the horses become a tourist attraction then there’ll beincreased pressure for people to come into the training area all of the time. And you cannot open these sorts of areas to the public safely. That’s the problem we’ve had. In the past there was a great deal of pressure to have a north-south walkway smack through the middle of the training area; and they said ‘Oh well, all you have to do is not fire over that area. And, trampers won’t go off the identified tracks.’ Which is incredibly naive.”

At that time, however, and given that the Army was negotiating to buy artillery with a range of around 17,000 metres, it had no choice but to look eastward for expansion. It had its eye on approximately 10,000 hec-tares owned by Nicolas Koroneff. Ko-roneff fought a sustained battle against the acquisition of his land under the Town & Country Planning Act. He brought an action against the Minister of Works and the Rangitikei County Council, but judgement went against him. Mr Justice Haslam’s de-cision in March 1973 allowed the Ministry of Works to take Koroneff’s land and zone it for defence purposes in order to replace land lost to Lake Moawhango.

There were feral horses on Ko-roneff’s land, and in his claim he had said he was building a tourist facility around them. When the land settle-ment was made the Army was or-dered to pay for 50 horses at $30 a head. Do, therefore, those horses and their progeny belong to the Army, and if they do, is the Army legally liable for their actions?

The issue is clouded by the fact of protection. Can protected horses be owned by anyone? Currently there is no dispute over ownership. The matter hasn’t been contested. No one knows who, if anyone, owns the animals.

Under current fauna protection laws, explains Bill Fleury, citizens do not have a claim against the Crown in the event of, say, property damage. But does the same apply if it is established that these protected horses are legally owned by the Army?

Inevitably the day will come when an incident will occur which will make the question of liability very pertinent. That is the day the Army is interested in. That is part of the Doomsday scenario, and it is why Bret Bestic has been prodding the committee to get some research done.

The Army is not claiming legal ownership but it has in the past referred to itself as the legal owner. For instance, a letter from the then Secretary of Defence, J.F. Robertson, to the wild horse committee in the late 1970s said “as legal owner of the horses” the Army would wish to be included in any discussions about herd management.

“I don’t see how you can own wild horses,” says Bret Bestic. “The way they were looking at the matter then was that because the horses were owned they were therefore not wild. You can’t own something wild. We were ordered to buy them. Therefore they are no longer wild.”

A further argument, says the Colonel, is that there may be no such thing as absolute ownership by the Army, because the Army is taxpayer-funded.

The Army was not enthusiastic about the horses being protected. The effect of Wildlife Order (No. 2) 1981 is to “absolutely protect the wild horses in the South Kaimanawa Ranges. Horses living in a wild state elsewhere in New Zealand are not protected.” Worried by possible in-creasing demands for public access to their land the Army argued that the horses were under their protection anyway: soldiers were not allowed to shoot them and the public was not permitted access.

In the event that argument did not prevail. However, it does serve to emphasise the ownership dilemma: if the Army has paid for the horses, but if they are protected by an Act which is administered by the Department of Conservation, who is legally responsible for them?

The Army appears to have a genuine proprietorial fondness for the horses. Bret Bestic says gruffly that they’re “good to have around”. In fact the Army group he leads is now cast very much in the role of conservationist, or wildlife ranger, of the Moawhango River headwaters region.

It is at first an incongruity to have an army and all its weaponry involved in the business of preserving a fragile ecological balance, but that is what’s happening.

Several bird species have chosen the area as a preferential habitat. These include the blue duck, spur-winged plovers from Australia, the New Zealand falcon, black shags and banded dotterels. Deer are beginning to reappear, tentatively, now that the days of helicopter capture have wound down and domestic herds are at optimum levels. The deer are still fair game for occasional Army hunters.

The attraction for the deer is doubtless the same as for the horses and birds: it is that public access to the area is restricted, there is control over poaching (there is still some poaching in the far north-east of Army territory, but not much), and other habitat encroachments, such as farming, do not occur. In some respects the Moawhango region is becoming a haven for flora and fauna.

“We take a lot of care over this area,” says Bestic. “It’s the only training area we’ve got and it’s one of the best in the world. We will do anything and everything we can to preserve it. If as a consequence of that preservation we also offer a haven to some wild animals and birds, well and good.”

The black shags may be in for a shock, however. They’ve been identified as carrying a parasite which can have adverse effects on rarer species, such as the blue duck, and also possibly on trout. Bestic, always the military pragmatist, plans to use the shags in the Army’s next sniper course. “We require a sniper to get a head shot at 600 metres. Now, a shag happens to be about the size of a human head…”

Interest in the horses is linked with increasing awareness of the Moawhango River headwaters as a region of unique landscape quality and fragile ecological balances. It is a place of rare, spartan beauty, highlighted by landforms which are as apparently illogical as they are dramatic.

There are abrupt, visible differences in vegetation and landforms between north and south within this region. Landforms in the south are block plateaus separated by river valleys and fault valleys, composed of sedimentary, high-fertility rocks such as sandstone and limestone. The north is undulating with the rounded ridges and wide, flat basins associated with greywacke.

The major vegetation in both areas reflects the differing landforms: to the south it is kaikawaka (native cedar) and Hall’s totara; to the north it is beech.

Within this contradictory landscape the rarer plants tend to exist in seepage habitats which have higher nutritional status. They are subject to grazing and trampling by the horses. Indications of damage are observational only at this stage, and the first of the committee’s major sponsored research projects is to have Dr Geoff Rogers, a landscape ecologist, examine the impact of the horses on their habitat. (See accompanying article.)

The committee also plans to initiate research using chromosomal sampling and blood protein analysis to establish the genetic rarity of the horses, plus a literature-based study of management problems affecting the feral horse population in the United States. Bill Fleury, the committee’s chair, says problems in the US are similar to those approaching in New Zealand, namely, the act of protection leading to a burgeoning population and flow-on problems from that.

Part of this research will be an evaluation of culling methods, and in particular the implanting of contraceptive drugs into dominant stallions. If this can be achieved whilst leaving their sexual performance intact and enabling them to continue protecting their home ranges, the rate of population increase could be slowed, even stopped.

The hormone-based contraceptive drug is administered by dart. The drug is in time-release form and lasts for about a year.

Other alternatives will be looked at including the US’s “Adopt-A-Horse” and other live capture options.

Hopefully a Doomsday scenario will not be necessary for the horses. It is too early to tell, since research work has only just started in earnest, but the general opinion seems to be that a variety of steps may secure both the horses, albeit at an optimum herd size, and their environment.

But if it came down to a choice between the plants and their environment or the horses, then Geoff Rogers, Robert Holmes and Bill Fleury all think it is probable that the horses will have to go.

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