Books

Anthony Sharwood
The Brumby Wars

The image of wild horses running free is exhilarating. It speaks to independence, to poetry, to an Australia invoked by the words of Banjo Paterson. But when the wild horses have run, what is left in their wake?

The Brumby Wars: The battle for the soul of Australia, by journalist and author Anthony Sharwood, takes a look at a niche but intense battle raging across pockets of Australia.

The focus of the book is Kosciuszko National Park, where the growing presence of brumbies is irreparably damaging the unique ecosystem. Sharwood paints a clear picture of an unfolding environmental disaster. The horse is an introduced species in Australia and, Sharwood explains, brumbies are like a stick in the wheel of a fragile ecosystem. They are destroying the moss that helps the park’s water to run clear instead of muddy, they are eating the grass that provides cover and safety to the broad-toothed rat and they are endangering the habitat of the corroboree frog. “Up against horses, moss and bogs and rats and frogs are a public relations basket case,” he writes.

The titular war is between those who want to protect the right of brumbies to roam national parks and those who want them out, although as Sharwood demonstrates there is a broad spectrum on each side of what this actually means.

Despite its title, The Brumby Wars isn’t a book simply about horses – it cuts to deeper issues of Australian identity and the climate emergency. Sharwood lays out what the problem is, explores both sides of the argument and digs into the historical context that has made this such an emotional issue for many. Why is it that people love brumbies so much that they are apparently willing to sacrifice entire species of native flora and fauna?

The writing is a bit uneven – there are some clumsy sentences and confusing similes – but there are also beautiful and humorous turns of phrase. Sharwood’s own presence in the book is odd – his decision to include himself in second person (“You plonk your backside too firmly on a camp chair, ripping its fabric”) is often distracting, and the phrasing around interviews seems perhaps more suited to an audiovisual medium. Any issue with the style, however, doesn’t extend to the content, which is thorough, grounded in research and accessible.

This book isn’t a removed, academic text. It is a work by a man who has done his research, who has gone and spoken to people on both sides of the debate, who has read the science and ventured out to see the impact firsthand. It’s a damning work about an urgent, much-overlooked issue.

Elizabeth Flux

Hachette, 320pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 23, 2021 as "The Brumby Wars, Anthony Sharwood".

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Reviewer: Elizabeth Flux