THE highly emotive debate over the culling of brumbies in the high plains took a new turn this week, when Omeo cattleman Philip Maguire embarked on a mustering trip through the treacherous snow-capped High Country to bring back about 100 brumbies surviving between the town of Benambra and the Snowy River.
It is the latest move in Mr Maguire's 'Rural Resistance' campaign to save the maligned horses from being shot in a ground-based feral horse reduction program by Parks Victoria, and follows the state government's announcement on Monday it will postpone the planned cull until June 1.
A Supreme Court hearing on Tuesday will now ultimately determine the fate of the horses, which are caught in the middle of two vastly different ideologies.
Under a 2018-2021 feral species management plan, the Bogong High Plains brumbies were to be culled by ground-based shooters, but Mr Maguire, a former Melbourne journalist turned cattleman, is calling for them to be placed on the Alpine Heritage List and managed through re-homing and other reduction methods.
In a statement released on Wednesday, the Mountain Cattlemen's Association of Victoria called for "a return to traditional brumby control methods".
MCAV president Bruce McCormack said brumbies should remain in genetically sustainable numbers in the High Country, but recognised brumby numbers had risen dramatically "since cattlemen were removed from their grazing runs in the High Country".
"We wish to make it clear, the MCAV supports practical management of the brumbies - but we certainly do not agree with mindlessly heading out and shooting them," Mr McCormack said.
The traditional methods the MCAV is calling for include trapping, running and mustering brumby herds, recommending re-homing suitable animals with discretion for condition, age and sex.
Despite Monday's reprieve and community opposition, the state government is unlikely to back away from the cull permanently, with Parks Victoria chief executive Matthew Jackson saying the government was committed to protecting Victoria's biodiversity to ensure it was "healthy, valued and actively cared for".
"Parks Victoria has a legal and moral obligation to protect the native species that are at risk of extinction from the impacts of feral horses and other pest animals," he said.
"The conservation of Alpine National Park is key to this. Native alpine plants and animals which are found nowhere else on the planet are not equipped to deal with the weight, grazing, hard hooves or trampling of feral horses."
Parks Victoria also has some unlikely support, with the RSPCA expressing approval of the ground shooting of growing numbers of High Country wild horses.
Government surveys have found horse numbers have grown from 9000 to 24,000 over five years in national parks throughout Victoria and New South Wales.
Speaking to the Gippsland Times on Wednesday, Mr Jackson said the 2019-20 bushfires had intensified the need to protect precious habitat from destruction by hooved animals, with the small areas less affected by fire being the only areas left for threatened native species.
Invasive Species Council chief executive Andrew Cox has weighed into the debate, conceding the culling of horses was an emotive issue, but called for a "rational" conversation about the protection of national parks.
Mr Cox said the council supported the government's plan to reduce brumby numbers in the High Plains, adding there had been "too much inaction for too long".
He said he understood people were concerned about the welfare of the horses, but animal welfare was a strong part of the reduction program.
"It's a hard choice, but if you don't act the problem gets worse, people have to understand what national parks are here for," Mr Cox said.
"And national parks are for native species, not feral animals."
But many supporters of Rural Resistance have questioned how much damage can be attributed to the brumbies, and have accused Parks Victoria of using the issue as an excuse to get rid of the horses.
Mr Maguire, who is undertaking the mustering trip with his wife and daughter, hoped he could convince the state government of the need to protect the horses, which he said have a proven genetic link with Waler horses bred on the Bogong High Plains and ridden by the Light Horseman in the Middle East during World War 1.
He is planning to house the horses they bring back at his property until the state government cancels the cull and "common sense prevails".
A large part of Parks Victoria's work is based around managing deer, pigs and other non-native species programs such as feral horse management to protect the state's national parks.
Parks Victoria has said all feral horse management operations are thoroughly planned, carried out by highly qualified and experienced professionals under strict conditions, ensuring the operations are safe, effective, humane and in accordance with all relevant legislation, codes of practice and standard operating procedures.
Adding heat to the debate, on Tuesday state opposition leader Michael O'Brien called for an end to the cull.
Anyone interested in following Mr Maguire's campaign can visit his Facebook group 'Rural Resistance' for action updates.