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Tantangara brumby rescue

What started out as a normal day in the office quickly turned into one of the more interesting challenges in the life of a Local Land Services District Veterinarian. My days are usually spent investigating mortalities in livestock, excluding exotic and notifiable disease, determining the cause, and then implementing a management plan to improve welfare, increase productivity, and protect the livestock industry and markets.  Instead, I received a call from National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), requesting my assessment and advice about six brumbies that had become isolated on an island in the middle of Tantangara Dam. It was unknown how long the brumbies had been on the island, but they were thought to have moved there when the water levels were much lower. The water level in the dam was rising rapidly and the island was expected to be under water within the next 2 weeks. As this request fell within our duty towards emergency management of livestock and animal welfare assistance we responded to the call.

Tantangara Dam is part of the Snowy Hydro system, on the Murrumbidgee River in the Kosciuszko National Park (KNP). Water levels in this dam are normally kept at around 20 per cent, but had risen to 75 per cent very rapidly as a result of recent rainfall and snow melting off the surrounding mountains. Water can be released into Eucumbene dam and the Murrumbidgee River, but as these systems were already at or over capacity, no release could be made.

With this in mind, Biosecurity Support Officer, Kirrily Gould and I travelled to the dam where we were collected by NPWS staff and boated out to the island. On the island we found two stallions, two mares and two foals of about one week of age. Unfortunately one of the stallions had been severely injured by the other stallion and required euthanasia. The other five horses all appeared in good health, but the island was only about one acre in size and all the pasture had been eaten. Lucerne hay was being provided to the horses, but this was only a very short term solution.

After discussing the options with NPWS staff, it was decided to attempt to swim all the remaining horses off the island the following day. Our greatest concern was for the very young foals, which would need to swim a distance of almost one kilometer in extremely cold water. We decided to direct the horses on a route that would lead to a second island about 800 m away, where they could be rested, before completing the final 200 m to the mainland. If the foals started to become distressed whilst swimming, we planned to assist them by either supporting them with a sling from the side of the boat, or sedating and placing them in the boat. This would only be used as a last resort as we were concerned that sedating and/or handling the foals may lead to the mares abandoning them.

We returned the following day, to meet with three of the NPWS staff, a helicopter pilot who would remove the body of the deceased horse from the island, and two local volunteers from a brumby rescue group. We gathered at the island, discussed our plan and then proceeded to encourage the horses into the water. The stallion calmly led the group off the island and started swimming with the rest of the herd following. Using the boats we guided the group towards the second island, and they all swam well without the foals requiring assistance. Once on the island, the horses were rested for almost an hour, which allowed them to dry out, warm up and for the foals to have a feed.

The final leg of the journey was carried out in the same manner; the horses all entered the water readily and easily achieved the short swim to the mainland, trotting off into the surrounding hills. This operation highlights the diverse functions and multi-agency responses that Local Land Services staff can be involved in.