Racing carnival poses an unexpected environmental threat

Training on Warrnambool's Lady Bay Beach. Photo: Rob Gunstone

Training on Warrnambool's Lady Bay Beach. Photo: Rob Gunstone

As the world's best stayers thunder around the Flemington course during the spring racing carnival, spare a thought for a tiny bird that is punting on its ability to distract the predators which are driving it to extinction.

Along the Great Coast Road between Warrnambool and Port Fairy is the Belfast Coastal Reserve: some 20 kilometres of beaches on the Bass Strait coast. This year this special strip of Australia's shoreline is in uproar and, it seems, it may have all come out of last year's Cup when trainer Darren Weir listed "training Prince of Penzance on the beach sands" as part of the winning formula.

"I need the beach and dunes to be open," he has since said. "I can understand they have to close the main beach at Warrnambool over the holidays but if Killarney beach is closed, I'll be closing my Warrnambool operation.

"It would be totally unviable for me to train in Warrnambool if we could not use the beach or the dunes for the full year. The beach and dunes have been the key to my success and others."

So, suddenly, each morning there is a stream of semi-trailer-sized horse floats arriving on the Belfast Reserve beachfront and from dawn to mid-morning the beach is being pounded by the thunder of horses' hooves. It is a welter by the water.

Local beach users, including bathers, fishers and the occasional pony rider, have been squeezed out: no warning, no consultation, no payment, no thanks.

After a short period of astonishment, two nearby residents got together a community group to defend their region's prize asset – its beaches. Bill Yates, who lives near Killarney Beach at the centre of the invasion, joined singer-songwriter Shane Howard to set up the Belfast Coastal Reserve Action Group.

Yates explains: "I visit Killarney Beach most days. Nearly 12 months ago it began to get harder and harder to find a park down at the beach. Horse transport trucks started turning up in large numbers at the Killarney Beach boat ramp. I couldn't get my boat in or out from the beach. Horse trainers were turning up en masse on our beach and the impact to the environment and the wildlife was immediate.

"In the past 18 months there has been an exponential, unregulated, increase in the amount of commercial horse trainers accessing the dunes and beaches for track work and exercise. This has largely been brought about by the success of Darren Weir winning the Melbourne Cup in 2015 and his claims that using the area has been part of the reason for that success. This has resulted in conflict between horse trainers and other beach users and community groups that care for the environment and protect the wildlife.

"In the past, small scale local trainers have used the beaches at times for therapeutic work. That is, low impact, water's edge, wading. What is occurring now is high impact, large volume, base of the dunes, in the dunes training at Levys Point, Rutledges Cutting and Killarney Beach. There have been reports of intimidation from trainers and riders towards other beach users and some are now reluctant to use these areas."

Perhaps the most intimidated local is that tiny bird, the red-eyed, black-headed Hooded Plover that darts about the sand trying to attract attention. It is attempting to draw predators away from its eggs in its nest on the sand. As it fails, so it is headed for extinction. Pet dogs are its most widespread foe on beaches across southern Australia but now, on this shoreline, it is the thunder of horses' hooves for which it is no match.

I am a Cup-lover and, in my Senate years never failed to run an office sweep or to have everyone gather round the television for the running of one of the world's great races. Nor do I think the racing community's invasion of the Belfast Beach coastal reserve has been malicious. It seems more a case of an out-of-control enthusiasm for what seemed to be a winning formula and no government supervision of the beach. But the public commons of these beaches predates even the Melbourne Cup and it is up to government to reassert the public good.

If there is really an advantage in training horses on sand, how about the corporations buying their sand on the open market like everyone else? The locals deserve a fair go. That incudes the little black-hooded sprinter, weighing just a few grams which, fast as it may be, is no match for the half-tonne horses now pounding through its nursery.

Bob Brown is a former senator and leader of the  Australian Greens. 

​This article first appeared in The Age.

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