Context . Helicopter shooting is an effective tool for reducing feral horse (Equus caballus) populations that are considered overabundant. However, this tool has been less commonly used in recent years because of concerns about animal-welfare outcomes, which have not previously been quantified.
Aims . The aims of the present study were to assess the helicopter shooting of feral horses to determine (1) the duration of stress, (2) the frequency of adverse animal-welfare events and (3) the influence of explanatory variables in determining welfare outcomes.
Methods . We quantified the welfare outcomes of three helicopter shooting programs in central Australia during 2013 and 2015. We conducted ante-mortem observations of 937 horses and post-mortem observations of 630 horses. We measured the following three parameters to estimate the duration of stress from pursuit and the mode of death: chase time (CT), time to death (TTD) and total time (TT; CT TTD). We quantified the frequency of adverse animal-welfare events, namely instantaneous death rate (IDR; percentage of animals for which TTD was zero), the apparent frequency of non-fatal wounding, and the frequency of bullet-wound tracts in different anatomical locations. We investigated the role of explanatory variables in determining whether or not a horse had an inferred instantaneous death.
Key results . For all horses, the median CT was 42 s, the median TTD was 0 s (median TTD for horses not killed instantaneously was 15 s), and median TT was 52 s. At least 1% of horses were non-fatally wounded, IDR was 63% (60–66%), and 3% (2–5%) of horses were not shot in the cranium, neck or thorax. Shooter skill was the most important determinant of whether or not a horse had an instantaneous death.
Conclusions . The animal-welfare outcomes of helicopter shooting appear to be similar for feral horses and feral camels (Camelus dromedarius), the only other species that has been studied using these methods, and could be refined by improving shooter skill.
Implications . Quantifying animal-welfare outcomes is particularly important for contentious wildlife management techniques. Wildlife managers should integrate the results of welfare studies into decision-making processes rather than excluding contentious techniques from consideration on the basis of perception.