Australia Mulls Sentiment on Live Sheep Export Ban

July 27, 2023

Caption: Value and share of WA live sheep exports (by sea) compared with value of sheep meat exports.
Source: ABARES Trade Dashboard.
Caption: Value and share of WA live sheep exports (by sea) compared with value of sheep meat exports. Source: ABARES Trade Dashboard.

Australia’s independent panel consulting on the phase out of live sheep exports by sea has gathered submissions and now expects to provide its recommendations on how and when to phase out live sheep exports by sea by September 30, 2023.

The panel engaged with over 2,000 attendees at in-person forums and over 330 at virtual forums, as well as holding over 80 meetings with organisations and farmer groups. It also received over 800 written submissions and 3,300 survey responses.

“We acknowledge this is an uncertain time for many,” said the panel in a written update. We heard and recognise the unease about the future of the sheep and related industries in Western Australia. Discussing the policy and its potential impacts on livelihoods has been unsettling for many people.”

An overwhelming majority of the people who attended our public meetings voiced their opposition to the government’s decision to implement its election commitment and phase out live sheep exports by sea.

“On the other hand, we heard from some stakeholders that the government’s decision to phase out should be implemented as soon as possible.”

During consultations, common issues were raised relating to the phase out, including:

Sheep producers – Live export is used in WA to mitigate risk and diversify farm operations. This is due in part to the different climate, geography and limited domestic market opportunities in the west compared to the eastern states. However, some producers have successfully shifted their businesses away from a reliance on the live export trade. Removing live exports will require producers to use a different avenue for turning off stock and make alternative production decisions.

Wool industry – Many were concerned that without live export, farmers would not run the same number of Merinos, for wool and this may erode prices or services associated with wool production such as shearing. There was also concern about the future viability of the wool exchange in WA if the state’s wool clip drops. Live export provides an option for farmers turning off older wethers or culled ewes, and producers will need an alternative outlet for these sheep.

Cattle producers – Cattle producers were concerned about the future absence of mixed-species (cattle and sheep) voyages to the Middle East from Fremantle. They were also anxious about whether the closure of live sheep exports would be a precursor to changes for live cattle exports, noting the government has committed that the phase out will only apply to live sheep exports by sea.

Broadacre cropping industry – Some producers who use live export are suggesting they will change their enterprise mix, reduce their sheep operations and increase grain production. They were concerned this may increase their exposure to drought and other climatic events, and broader risks. Other producers were worried about the phase out because of the potential flow-on impact to their businesses. For example, if grain production increases in WA, this may put downward pressure on grain prices and stretch the capacity of grain logistic supply chains which are reportedly already under pressure particularly in long-haul grain production areas of the state. Fewer sheep may decrease the demand for hay, straw and lupins, impacting other producers.

Processing industry – There is a current lack of capacity in the WA processing sector. Existing abattoirs are limited by factors such as access to labour, employee accommodation and cold storage capacity both at abattoirs and at ports. There are also concerns about the downward effect on prices paid by processors if live export is removed as a source of competition. The strong view was that exporters in the market put upward pressure on prices being paid by other buyers.

Community impact – Phasing out the live export industry may have consequences for the social and economic fabric of WA towns and regional services, continuing a trend of declining populations in some places. Communities may feel the broader effects of the phase out as businesses in the supply chain, such as transporters and shearers and other local retail and service sectors are also affected.

Wellbeing – The uncertainty regarding the implementation and transition arrangements of the phase out is adding to other concerns such as climate change, cost of input pressures, and other government policy and program changes. These combined factors may have a detrimental effect on the mental health of farmers who feel they have a lack of control over these decisions and their impact on their businesses and their communities. Wellbeing is also impacted by current market and deteriorating seasonal conditions.

Infrastructure and logistics – Concern was expressed about the quality of existing infrastructure and its ability to accommodate a shift from sheep to more cropping. A growth in grain production may mean additional trucks on the road, impacting road conditions and safety. Other infrastructure such as feedlots or pre-export shearing facilities may need to be re-purposed or new facilities constructed.

Trade and exports – Growing demand from new and existing markets for sheep meat, particularly from older sheep and the lightweight wether Merino, will likely be crucial for supporting the WA sheep industry. Existing trading partners would prefer the live trade to continue for food security and cultural preference reasons, complementing Australian meat imports. Trading partners have made investments to meet Australian animal welfare requirements in support of the existing trade.

Animal welfare – The panel heard from people who are distressed by the long history of animal welfare incidents that have occurred on vessels and in importing countries, notwithstanding the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock (ASEL) and the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS). There was strong support for an early end to live sheep exports by sea. There was recognition that producers need time to adjust, or adverse circumstances could be created for existing stock. Animal welfare groups noted the importance of sheep being slaughtered as close to their point of origin as possible. They also emphasised there will need to be greater monitoring of sheep welfare and enforcement of the Australian Land Transport of Livestock standards if stock is moved by truck from western to eastern Australia.

Market trends

Australia exports sheep meat to over 80 countries. WA’s live sheep exports have been declining due to many factors and sheep meat exports have been increasing. A high proportion of sheep in WA are processed domestically.

There is ongoing demand for WA wool. In 2021–22, WA wool exports were valued at $715 million. The value of WA sheep meat exports has more than doubled since 2010-11. In comparison, the value of WA live sheep exports and its share of the market value has decreased, dropping in value by more than 50%.

Ideas for the future

Through consultations and in written submissions, stakeholders offered suggestions for how to approach the transition away from live exports. Broadly, these ideas included:

• increasing sheep meat processing capacity in WA
• expanding international market opportunities for sheep meat
• supporting individuals facing change
• helping businesses including farmers plan and reinvest for the future
• supporting regional communities affected by the phase out
• encouraging industry to build a future whole of supply chain strategy for sheep in WA
• sustaining or improving animal welfare outcomes in the lead up to the phase out
• the potential for financial support for those affected by the phase out.

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