Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Down around the Snowy ‘where the pine-clad ridges raise/ their torn and rugged battlements on high’ there’s a barney going on, and it’s a beauty. No confinement to angry words but rather ‘a fisticuffs at dawn’ sort of brawling. And the reason for all this ill-will remains blithely ignorant of all the fuss. Just a simple brumby, a wild horse whose ancestors have ranged through Kosciusko country since the 1860s or thereabouts. Just as he does now.
Deputy Premier of NSW John Barolaro put the case for leaving the brumbies to live out their lives undisturbed:
I ask the House to picture this image: a beautiful stallion running wild and free, his muscles bulging with strength. When he stands up on his back hooves one is overcome by his grace and power. There is nothing quite like seeing a brumby in the wild. It is an absolute thrill (166).
One of his opponents, who had worked with horses for over twenty years paints a different picture. When speaking of brumbies in the Coffs Harbour hinterland, he reported:
All had noticed emaciated horses congregating on the river flats. ‘There was very limited feed and the horses were in poor condition and getting poorer…Some were down on the ground and had lost the strength to move. At least a couple were already dead’ (72).
The poor condition of brumbies generally combined with their huge numbers destroying the natural habitat form the basis for the argument that they need to be culled. Estimated numbers rose from 9190 in 2014 to 25318 in 2019. An official survey set the number at 14000. In his book, Anthony Sharwood lays out the basis of argument of the opposing sides: the steeds of Banjo Paterson and the glorious heritage of The Man from Snowy River vs the argument of the landowners who have to compete with the damage caused by large mobs of horses. Any suggestion of a simple cull is met with bitter recrimination.
Sharwood’s arguments are spelled out in clear, sparkling prose. Where he describes the results of a cull, such as in his chapter Fawkes News, the writing is graphic, and the script is bloody. When he writes his chapter, The Real Man from Snowy River, we are mesmerised by the beauty of the mountains and convinced by the reported research on the density of herbivores in tiny Byadbo. One cannot argue against a huge pile of horse dung: it should convince even the most obstinate soul that horses are about. Sharwood presents his evidence but broadens his expose of the region. For example, he goes a long way towards convincing his readers that Paterson’s expert rider was in fact a man of indigenous origin.
This book contains all sorts of interesting facts, none more so than the characters that inhabit the pages. There is Elyne Mitchell, the author of The Silver Brumby, the tough outdoors man Richard Swain who takes hardy souls to run the rapids, the obdurate Leisa Caldwell, whose views are as immovable as the toughest mountain granite and Deputy Premier John Barilaro, whose opinions are as flexible as any wafting mountain breeze.
As Sharwood describes in his book, human beings can be blinded by emotion. Some see themselves as champions of old-school values, the brumbies a symbol, or maybe an excuse. Sharwood reports that Phil Maguire of Rural Resistance maintains that the brumbies ‘have become emblematic of a cultural heritage that is besieged by leftists and fake environmentalists… If the brumbies go… another huge slice of Australia’s identity will be lost. We must win this war for the sake of our country’ (256), yet Sharwood senses that the brumbies’ presence may well lead to cattle grazing once more in the High Country, from which a profit might be made.
There are wounds in both camps that are never allowed to heal. Sharwood opens these to public view. But the author does more than focus on intransigence, he tells as well the beauty of a landscape that is matchless on all criteria. The Brumby Wars is an attractive book, its contents revealed with consummate thoroughness. Readers of this book can expect to be well satisfied.
By Anthony Sharwood
$32.99; 320 pp