Horse racing and hooded plovers: the battle for Killarney Beach

Before thoroughbred horses can race, they must train.  They train on private racetracks, they train on farms, and in Australia – they train on the beach.

In fact, one of the most famous horses to train on the beaches between Warrnambool and Port Fairy was Prince of Penzance, who won the 2015 Melbourne Cup, one of the most famous thoroughbred races worldwide.  He’s Horse #19 in this footage.

It was said that Prince of Penzance got his speed from running on the soft sands of the Australian shoreline, and before long dozens of other horse trainers brought their stallions to run along the sands as well.

But the increase in horse training at Killarney Beach in the Australian state of Victoria has also caused danger for one of the beach’s longtime residents.  A little bird called a hooded plover.

Hooded plovers live on the beach their entire life.  As chicks, the plover must find food within hours of hatching or they will die.  They are threatened by several predators, including European red foxes, feral cats, and even domesticated dogs.

And for the plovers who breed along Killarney Beach, they are also threatened by the hoofbeats of training racehorses.

The battle between the horseracing industry and environmentalists has reached a new fever pitch, with both sides arguing for their own position.  The Australian government has stepped in, and now some of the stables – including the Warrnambool Racing Club – have been issued licenses regarding where and for how long they can train their racehorses on the sands.

But the fate of the fragile seabird still rests in the hands of conservationists and naturalists.

Even Shane Howard, the lead singer of the Australian rock band Goanna, has taken up the cause to protect the hooded plover and Killarney Beach from the hoofbeats.

TWO SISTERS-SHANE HOWARD from BCRAG on Vimeo.

Such is his solo song, “Two Sisters,” and Shane writes about the song as thus:

“I spent so much of my life fighting for so many beautiful places in this country of ours … A little 20 km strip of remnant dunes, wetlands and beaches between Warrnambool and Port Fairy, rich with birds, like the little Hooded Plover, that are vulnerable to extinction. An ecosystem rich with recovering wildlife and plant life: Echidnas, Swamp Wallabies, Long necked tortoises, a number of snake species, seals, Blue whales, Southern Right Whales, short finned eels, all manner of sea creatures and so much more. There are kelp forests, weedy sea dragons, Antarctic seals and hundreds of species of birds … But now it faces another onslaught. Over a year ago, the racing industry descended on our beaches in what can only be described as an onslaught and racehorse training exploded on the beaches of our Belfast Coastal Reserve on an industrial scale. Our beaches are now turned into racehorse training tracks. No permits, no invitation, no fees. Public land to destroy, for free. Our beaches cannot survive such a devastating impact.”

This is a case of economy against ecology, of industry versus nature.  We have that in New York, where the Adirondack Mountains are listed as “Forever Wild” to protect the beautiful forests from excessive logging and timber and deforestation.  And we have the Pine Bush Preserve, where the endangered Karner Blue Butterfly thrives and lives, in an effort to protect Mother Nature’s tiniest creatures from urban sprawl and extinction.

Are there answers?  A compromise?  A total ban?  Surrender?

I don’t know.

What would your solution be?  Ban the horses from Killarney Beach?  Restrict them to certain areas away from the hooded plover nesting grounds?  Or is there even a solution that satisfies all parties?

This is a battle that I fear may not have a successful outcome.

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