Wild at heart

Frank SmithCountryman

Katherine and Kevin Waddington have a 40-hectare horse property just outside of Nannup called Wadi Farm.

Their horses were purchased from the Outback Heritage Horse Association of WA (OHHAWA), a charity formed to rescue and find new homes for feral horses in pastoral and remote rural country in WA.

The association mainly saves wild horses on pastoral properties that are in the process of being converted into fauna reserves.

"The charity was formed in 2005 with nine members, following the rescue of several large grey horses from Earaheedy station near Wiluna," Katherine said.

"The pastoral lease at Earaheedy was sold back to the government around 1986. In 1999, CALM - now the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) - started shutting down water sources and clearing out feral animals with the aim of returning the station to its native state.

"CALM shut down the dams and sent in shooters. One shooter contacted a vet he knew, who in turn contacted Sheila Greenwell, a South West vet, saying the horses were too good to shoot."

In 2005, Dr Greenwell and her associates conducted two rescues on Earaheedy, saving 14 horses.

"A population of less than 50 horses is not genetically viable," Katherine said.

"We have since rescued horses on other private and Crown land. Our latest rescue is being conducted in the Lake Muir wetland in the South West. The wetland is drying up and becoming saline."

The OHHAWA has more than 150 members in WA and has rescued more than 150 outback horses. Katherine is the secretary.

"We cannot rescue as many horses as other charities. We have no government funding, and distance and the cost of fuel is a problem," she said.

"We now have a memorandum of understanding with the DEC. If it decides to cull feral horses or the horses are at risk, it will let us know and we will attempt a rescue if possible."

The association takes the rescued horses to one of three properties - one in Nannup, a small property at Bakers Hill and another at Margaret River - where they can become accustomed to people and trained, after which they are sold to good homes.

"We aim to rescue the youngest, those less than three years old, that have had no experience with people. They are the easiest to train," Katherine said. "Although, we have rescued older horses as well."

_Preserving bloodlines _

A motivation behind the rescues is the need to preserve genetic resources retained in old bloodlines.

"They have traits that have been bred out of modern horses. They are quiet and good-natured. Horses that are a problem are rejected by the herd," Katherine said. "They are also good-doers in poor conditions. They eat a wide range of food including pasture and browse. They are hardy, healthy horses and if they are injured, they heal quickly.

"Some buyers use them as part of a breeding program. They are good to cross with modern horses for improved temperament and robust feet. When we rescue them, they are usually in poor condition but disease-free."

Katherine said one of the main diseases that horses from the north of WA catch is ephemeral fever, which is a virus carried by insects or ticks and only survives north of the 26th Parallel. "Adult horses get over it in three days but if they are pregnant, it can damage the heart muscles of the foetus," she said.

"The northern wildies have no parasites. They get worms when we bring them south.

"There are some stunning animals. They have evolved by breeding in the area over a long time. Many are descended from horses bred as military remounts in decades past."

The OHHAWA recently became one of the founding groups in The Australian Brumby Alliance Inc, a national body with representative wild-horse rescue groups in almost every state of Australia.

The charity liaises with government bodies and the RSPCA regarding removal of horses from government-managed lands, and aims to ensure that future de-stocking processes that involve the removal of horses are undertaken humanely.

"We are interested in saving the animals for humane and genetic reasons but we are not opposed to culling - if it is done humanely and as a last option," Katherine said.

Getting the horses used to domestic life on a farm takes time and patience. Once the horses are rescued from outback properties, they are confined to solid yards for a few days, then released into a small holding paddock. Later, they go into a larger paddock fenced with plain wires and an electric outrigger.

"If we put them in a bigger paddock too soon they can go through the fences," Katherine said.

Wadi Farm has 24ha of pasture and the rest is bush. Katherine and Kevin have planted tagasaste to provide browse for horses that are not used to a diet of just grass and clover.

Because Katherine and Kevin have specialised animal-handling skills, Murdoch vet students visit the property to gain experience in training and treatment of horses as part of the Extramural Farm Experience Program.

"Horses are different if they are from the wild," Katherine said.

·

For more information on the OHHAWA, go to

http://ohhawa.wildhorses-wa.com

They have traits that have been bred out of modern horses. They are quiet and good-natured. Katherine Waddington

Get the latest news from thewest.com.au in your inbox.

Sign up for our emails