Environment

Rare birds versus horse trainers: The battle for Warrnambool’s beaches

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Racehorse trainers on Golfies Beach, near Port Fairy.

Photo: Supplied

When Victorian horse trainer Darren Weir won the 2015 Melbourne Cup with Prince of Penzance he attributed his success, in part, to the famed Warrnambool dunes and beaches where the champion thoroughbred trained.

This, according to the Belfast Coastal Reserve Action Group, is the moment that sparked the battle for the south-west's coast.

Suddenly a historical practice which had been "tolerated" – local trainers using the beaches for their horses – got ramped up on an industrial scale.

"That's when all hell broke loose," the action group's Bill Yates says.

Hooded plover expert Grainne Maguire said the Belfast Coastal Reserve was the most significant part of the threatened bird's range.

Photo: Justin McManus

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The practice has pitted those who want to protect the environment against a horse-training industry rich in money and jobs for the region.

The conflict has been brought to a head by Parks Victoria, which is currently developing a new management plan for the area, due later this year.

The 20-kilometre stretch of coastline between Warrnambool and Port Fairy is, according to Parks Victoria, "known for its wild and unspoilt nature".

It encompasses the renowned surf breaks at Golfies Beach, the steep dunes behind Levys Beach and Rutledges Cutting, where the waters of the Merri River flow through an estuary before meeting Bass Strait.

It's this character that Warrnambool Racing Club chief executive officer Peter Downs says is key to the success of local horse trainers, who have used the beaches for training for decades.

But environmentalists say the plan, which could allow up to 250 horses each day, would spell disaster for threatened and critically endangered species in the area.

It may also trigger a nasty precedent for other beaches in the state, they say.

Recreational rider Isla Reilly, 9, makes her way off the Belfast Coastal Reserve.

Photo: Rob Gunstone

The plan is still in its draft stage, but pleasing all the stakeholders may be difficult.

A 2014 state government report found the thoroughbred racing industry generated $97.2 million in "value-added impact" in the area and provided full-time employment for almost 950 people.

"Access to the beach is vitally important to our industry ongoing," Mr Downs says.

Racing Victoria says there are about 250 thoroughbreds training in and around Warrnambool. Mr Downs says those horses mean jobs.

But one of the leading experts on hooded plovers, Grainne Maguire, says the plan could drive threatened shorebirds further towards extinction.

Dr Maguire says the Belfast reserve is the most important breeding habitat for the hooded plover, which is considered a resident bird of the reserve. Rutledge's Cutting is also an important foraging site for the orange-bellied parrot.

Both birds are listed by the federal government as top 20 priority birds in its threatened species strategy.

Recent research suggests habitat loss and degradation, particularly in Victoria, is the leading cause of the parrots' demise.

Dr Maguire says roughly $450,000 is spent on protecting birds in the reserve every year.

"It makes no sense to invest nearly half a million [dollars] in protecting the birds if threats that have been identified as their biggest barrier to recovery are not being addressed but instead facilitated by the proposed management plan," she said.

Both Mr Yates and Dr Maguire have suggested a purpose-built facility replicating the conditions on the beach as a "win-win" solution.

But Warrnambool trainer Matthew Williams says some things cannot be artificially replicated.

"It's a bit like footballers, they can use ice baths and things like that to cool down their joints, but they still head down to the beach," he said.

It is not yet clear how many horses could be allowed under the proposal, but in addition to Levys, up to 50 horses will be allowed to train on Golfies Beach and local trainers will be able to use Rutledge's Cutting and Killarney Beach.

A map showing proposed conservation zone in dark green and areas which would see horse training with red stars and shading.

Photo: Parks Victoria

Warrnambool Council already allows limited use of Warrnambool Beach, or Lady Bay – which is outside the Belfast Coastal Reserve – for horse trainers. This will not be affected by the proposal.

The state Environment Department's Barwon South West regional manager community and partnership programs, Jason Borg, says the proposed plan will strike a balance, limiting horse training to small areas.

It also includes "immediate priority management strategies" for both orange-bellied parrots and hooded plovers, he says.

But Mr Yates has accused the government of spin, saying the plan as it currently stood would see an increase in commercial horse training.

"The plan adds up to 250 horses a day on four locations," he says. "That sets a very nasty precedent for other Victorian beaches."

The Environment Department declined to respond to those figures. It would also not comment on whether it would consider a custom-built training facility as an alternative.

Joe Hinchliffe

Joe Hinchliffe reports breaking news for The Age.

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