Wyoming’s Wild Horses Debate Draws Attention Of English Wildlife Filmmakers

Some English documentary filmmakers told Cowboy State Daily on Thursday that wildlife management issues in the United Kingdom are similar to some in the U.S., and theyre exploring making Wyomings wild horses as the subject of their next film.

Mark Heinz

February 09, 20235 min read

Wild horses and filmmakers 2 9 23
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Red deer and white-tailed eagles in the United Kingdom have much in common with Wyoming’s wild mustangs insofar as they all illicit strong public reactions, say a group of English wildlife documentary filmmakers. 

“We’re attracted to complex topics with complex debates,” Ted Simpson told Cowboy State Daily in a Thursday Zoom interview.

Along with Finbar O’Sullivan, Simpson founded Scout Studio based in Cornwall, southwestern England. The two said they were driven by their passion for the outdoors and wildlife to leave careers in commercial video production and start making documentaries. 

They say they strive to get all sides of debates over iconic creatures and complex land management topics.

The filmmakers were widely praised for their 2020 film “The Cull: Scotland’s Deer Dilemma.” They’re finishing “The Eagle with the Sunlit Eye,” a documentary about the controversy surrounding the reintroduction of white-tailed eagles to Scotland. 

And thanks in part to Cowboy State Daily’s coverage of the issue, they’re now looking at Wyoming’s wild mustangs to be the subject of their next documentary. Simpson and O’Sullivan are in the early researching stage for that project and haven’t yet come up with a title. 

They would like to see it happen, though, including perhaps traveling to Wyoming and other parts of the West to get the full picture of how the mustangs have inspired some people, vexed others and sparked a long and heated debate over how to best manage them. 

Ted Simpson and Finbar O’Sullivan are filmmakers from the United Kingdom who want to make Wyoming’s wild mustangs the subject of their next wildlife documentary. (Courtesy Photo, Scout Studio)

Similar Quandaries On Both Sides Of The Pond

Just as in Wyoming, people in the UK wrestle with complex wildlife management challenges, they said. 

The mustang management quandary “is something that’s right up our street,” O’Sullivan said, referencing the similarities with previous topics they’ve tackled. 

Some in Wyoming claim that because they lack natural predators, mustangs here have run roughshod over habitat. 

Similarly, Scotland’s red deer – a species similar to North American elk – no longer have any natural predators, and many people there say they’ve become overpopulated and are putting a strain on ecosystems, Simpson said. 

Scotland used to have bears and wolves that preyed on red deer, but those predators have long since been wiped out there, he said. 

So, the tough questions are frequently the same on both side of the pond, O’Sullivan said. 

“What’s the best way, and who are the parties who should have a say in it?” he asked. “I think that’s what draws us to the films we make, understanding peoples’ connection to the wild.”

As in the American West, arguments over animals in the UK frequently involve agricultural interests, conservationists and government wildlife agencies trying to find common ground and policies that will work for everybody, Simpson said. 

Sound Familiar?

In a scenario that will sound familiar to people in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, the UK wrestled with the reintroduction of an “apex predator” when it was decided to bring back white-tailed eagles, a species similar to American bald eagles, Simpson said.

Some sheep farmers on Scotland’s west coast claimed the eagles were killing their stock, he said. 

And so, wildlife agencies found themselves caught between farmers on one side and eagle advocates on the other – much the same as with wolves in the Greater Yellowstone area. 

“The farmers don’t think they (wildlife managers) are doing enough, and the conservationists don’t think they should be doing anything,” Simpson said. 

Meanwhile, there’s been some talk of bringing wolves back to the Highland country, he said, adding that “some people see that as the way to solve the deer overpopulation, to bring the wolf back to Scotland.”

Iconic Creatures

Simpson and O’Sullivan said the more they look into the situation with the mustangs, the more complex it seems, but that could make for an incredible documentary. 

They’re fascinated by arguments over whether the horses are truly wild or feral, what effects they have on the landscape and how their history is interwoven with the Western cowboy and Native American cultures. 

They recognize that as an iconic species the mustangs have the power to attract a wide film audience.

“Using an animal like that can pull people in who might not otherwise watch a film about land management,” Simpson said. 

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Mark Heinz

Outdoors Reporter