For locals on Curtis Island, off the central coast of Queensland, it’s not uncommon to see wild horses roaming the beach, bushland or even the streets of the small town of Southend.
“For us, they’re just an essential part of the island,” said Kerry Freney.
“You’ve got the ocean, you’ve got the scenery, the beaches, and you’ve got the brumbies and the rose.”
Although striking to watch, the horses are part of a wildlife problem on the southern Great Barrier Reef island, according to the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS).
“Wildlife causes a great deal of damage to key habitats, to critical species, such as the yellow chat and the flatback turtles,” said Damon Shearer, senior officer of the QPWS Capricorn Coast Management Unit.
Although some horses remain on the island, about 15 kilometers offshore at Gladstone, their numbers have declined significantly since the introduction of a wildlife control program.
A spokesman for the Department of Environment and Science (DES) said wildlife, including horses, cats, foxes, dogs, pigs and cattle, spread disease and weeds, trample vegetation, damage wetlands and prey on a range of native wildlife , including turtle claws.
They said the monitoring program included aerial shots, which were conducted by experienced personnel from helicopters.
The spokesperson added that QPWS “complies with standard operating procedures and codes of practice to ensure animal welfare requirements are met” and that the public was notified before any firing.
Mr Shearer said the removal of wildlife had produced “phenomenal results” in restoring the island’s diverse flora and fauna.
Over the past four years, park rangers have noticed a significant increase in the endangered ibex yellow-throated population, after removal of ungulates resulted in significant vegetation regeneration.
DES research shows that the population of the species on the island had declined to single digits between 2005 and 2011 due to wildlife impacts and the ongoing drought.
But yellow chats recorded their highest number in the 2021-22 recording period at 73.
“The pigs have done incredible damage to the reedbeds in the north, the critical habitat for the yellow chatter,” Shearer said.
“Virtually every year, that area was turned over and just turned into mud.
“Now it’s a thriving aquatic environment, not just for the yellow chats, but for insects and reptiles, migratory birds coming in… it’s been an incredible transformation.”
The department’s research also shows that through targeted QPWS pest control, there is minimal loss of flatback turtle clutches from predators such as foxes, feral dogs, and feral pigs.
Education key to understanding
While some people on Curtis Island support the pest control program, others would like to see the animals in peace.
Linda Strickland has been coming to Curtis Island since she was a teenager and has fond memories of the horses that used to roam the town.
“Some wildlife just needs to be left alone; the brumbies and the cattle, we had a lot of cattle,” said Ms Strickland.
“I don’t think it’s such a big deal as anything [QPWS] make out that it is.”
Justine Shaw of the Queensland University of Technology works on the ecology and management of Antarctic and island ecosystems, and said that while culling invasive species can be controversial, there are major long-term benefits.
“Nobody likes to see animals killed, and that’s one of the challenges of culling invasive species,” said Dr Shaw.
“One of the things that helps people understand the benefits of these controls is that we’ve seen from many other islands in Australia and around the world that if the commitment is made to get rid of those invasive species , the benefits to native animals and vegetation are enormous.
“While it is unpleasant to clear, the long-term benefits are enormous.
“It is very important that we do not lose sight of the final price.”