Hoofprints on the plovers’ shore

Photo courtesy of Pixabay
A quiet stretch of coastline in Victoria’s south-west has become a battleground between conservationists and one of the region’s major industries – horse racing, writes Sinead McComish.

Each morning just on sunrise, hundreds of white fluffy sandy-brown little birds can be seen making their way to the water’s edge on an isolated beach in Killarney, in Victoria’s south-west.

Mostly seen in pairs, the little birds dart along the shore line bobbing and pecking as they forage for something to eat.

The Belfast Coastal Reserve is a stretch of beach between Warrnambool and Port Fairy in Victoria’s south-west.

This area has long been a safe haven for the Hooded Plover, a species under threat around the state.  

But  a quiet stretch of coastline has become a battleground between conservationist and one of the region’s major industries – horse racing.

The city of Warrnambool lives and breathes racing with the May Racing Carnival and a racehorse population of over 450.

Racehorse trainer Jane Baker has been a training horses for the past 23 years.

She  trains her horses along the beach and argues it is beneficial to both their physical and mental health.

“Out of the ten horses I have three to four train at the beach. Saltwater is good for their legs, sea air is good for their lungs and a different environment is good for their minds,” she said.

It has been shown that horses and wildlife can coexist. Trainers are aware of the issues including the Hooded Plover and are respectful of the beach.”

Like other trainers, she says its dogs, foxes and on-beach vehicles that are destroying the Hooded Plovers’ habitat.

The region’s beaches have been used to train a few noteworthy horses, including the 2015 Melbourne Cup winner, Prince of Penzance.

In September 2016, racehorses were banned from the Levys Point beach in Warrnambool after the dunes deteriorated.

Approximately 30 trainers in the region were affected by the ban.

Training will be allowed back on beaches over the next 15 years, under a draft State Government plan for the Belfast Coastal Reserve.

But it will come with strict conditions on set times and where horses are allowed.

Under the proposed plan, racehorse training area will increase from two kilometres to five kilometres, covering at least 25 per cent of the beaches.

Grainne Maguire, coast and marine project manager at Birdlife Australia has been pushing for a management plan for the Hooded Plover for nearly a decade.

“The Belfast Coastal Reserve supports around 10-12 per cent of the Victorian population number and around 2-2.5 per cent of the entire population.

“The exact number varies slightly from year to year, but typically the reserve supports around 55-75 birds,” Ms Maguire said.

“The hooded plovers are highly selective of high-energy, ocean beach habitats that support their survival and reproductive needs, with marine and terrestrial parameters playing a role in habitat suitability. This essentially means that not any beach will do.”

On horse beaches between Warrnambool and Narrawong in Victoria, only seven per cent of eggs have fledged chicks successfully. That’s  even chicks from 96 eggs, only 12 pairs.

Ms Maguire is disappointed commercial race horse training is increasing in the reserve. She is concerned about the environmental issues and public safety, as well as trainer safety risks.

“While most equestrian use of beaches occurs on the wet sand, during high tide periods, horse riders are forced to ride above the high-tide mark, meaning horses can crush nests and chicks,” she said.

Ms Maguire would like to see the proposed conservation upheld and enforced, horse training removed and rangers for the park.

“Given that horse training is something that can occur off the beach, why this is being maintained and even increased is completely inexcusable. It disregards scientific and work safe advice.

“There are species that can lose their habitats and these cannot be replaced, but horse training can occur with the same benefits off the beach. It shows how this country values its environment and cultural heritage,” she said.

Trainer Symon Wilde, has lived in Warrnambool his entire and has worked with horses in the area for 25 years.

Between two stables in Warrnambool and Ballarat  he trains more than 50 horses.

Mr Wilde used to train his horses in Killarney but stopped once the restrictions came in. He has since moved his training to Warrnambool but  said  the beaches are becoming too crowded.

“At the breakwater, horses are allowed at the beach to wade and swim in the water from sunrise until 10am all year round, but in the three summer months they are not allowed to trot or canter up and down the beach, as at these times the beach is too crowded,” he said.

“The beaches were used as a tourism tool to attract trainers to come to Warrnambool and train their horses on our beaches and this plan back fired.

“Trainers were told of the great benefits of beach training for horses and this increased the use of the beaches and made it unsustainable for everyone.”

Toni Ryan from Far West Friends of the Hooded Plover, believes the entire coastal strip should be combined into one conservation zone and become designated as a national park.

“This would ensure the entire strip is treated as an eco-system, rather than focusing on trying to save one or two species at a time,” she said.

“The introduction of large scale race horse training in recent times, saw large numbers of horses moving at very fast pace on the nesting zone at the top of the beach and rapid dune erosion.”

Numbers provided by Parks Victoria suggested there were 265 race horses being trained across Belfast Coastal Reserve.

According to Racing Victoria, there are around 140 horses training daily around the region.

Ms Ryan is skeptical that the State Government’s plan will change anything.

“The past two years has shown that licensing the horses will not work for Belfast Coastal Reserve. Firstly because their licences were overseen by Warrnambool Racing Club, and secondly because the trainers flouted the regulations constantly.”

“Horse incidents happen all around Australia on race tracks, but the public is usually protected. If race horses are allowed to train on the beach, there is no way of ensuring public safety,” she said.

Moyne Shire environment and regulatory services manager Robert Gibson, said the issue of horses on beaches has been polarizing within the whole community.

“Moyne Shire council stance is supportive of ensuring that commercial racehorse trainers have some controlled access to the beach,” he said.

Last month the community had a chance to have their say when Parks Victoria released the Belfast Coastal Reserve Draft Management Plan.

The finalised report is expected to be presented to the Government for approval soon.