Australia Sets Date for End of Live Sheep Exports

May 12, 2024

Source: Dr Lynn Simpson
Source: Dr Lynn Simpson

Australia’s Minister for Agriculture has announced that the nation’s live sheep export trade is to end on May 1, 2028.

The end date will be legislated in the Labor government’s current term, after the Department of Agriculture (DAFF) developed a plan for the phase out of the industry which considered the analysis of an independent panel established for the purpose.

The government has committed $107 million over five years for sheep producers and the supply chain to plan for and adjust to the phase out. Early action is being encouraged by the provision of funding now.

Australia's lamb and mutton exports were worth $4.5 billion in 2022-23 whereas live sheep exports by sea were less than $77 million in 2022-23, less than 0.1% of Australia's estimated agricultural production in that year.

"While live sheep exports have shrunk by $338 million over the past 20 years, our sheepmeat exports have grown by over 300% over that same period, with exports to the North Africa and Middle East region more than tripling in value over this period,” said Watt.

He says the community expects Australia to have the world’s best animal welfare practices, and the funding will include $2.6 million towards additional animal welfare measures during the transition.

The phase out is the result of animal welfare concerns which have plagued the industry throughout its history.

This includes the weeks-long voyage where around 2,400 sheep died of heat stress on the Awassi Express (subsequently renamed the Anna Marra) as it sailed from Fremantle to the Middle East in August 2017. Sheep were routinely transported across the equator from the southern hemisphere winter to the Middle Eastern summer until a moratorium was introduced in 2019.

The conditions on board the Awassi Express were brought to public attention when Animals Australia obtained whistleblower footage which was broadcast on a 60 Minutes program in April 2018. Footage from five separate voyages showed sheep suffering heat stress, some bogged in feces. Some sick and injured animals were left to die slowly as were some new-born lambs.

In another instance prior to that, a report that contained photographs of animals on livestock carriers was temporarily made public by the government in 2013. The report was prepared by veterinarian Dr Lynn Simpson, and speaking on the announcement of the ban, Simpson said: "After 57 voyages as a shipboard vet and 23 years of raising concerns to the Australian Government about the suffering and cruel conditions sheep experience at sea during voyages, I am ironically now most grateful to the DAFF for releasing my confidential report to the internet.

“The publication of my submission had me blacklisted from industrial vet work, especially from working on ships to provide first hand care to animals,” she said. “However, it freed me of the confidentiality measures needed to maintain employability in this trade. Instead, it freed my voice to share the realities to the world in great unsanitized detail.

“May live sheep export sit in the history books as a reminder of a darker past.”

The professional veterinary association, Vets Against Live Export (VALE) was established in 2011 following revelations of cruelty inflicted on Australian cattle exported to Indonesia. VALE continues to monitor the industry and has claimed that sheep being transported to port in March 2024 had wool length longer than allowed under Australia’s export standards.

VALE spokesperson Dr Sue Foster welcomed the confirmation that the sheep trade is to be phased out and countered concerns that animals will now be sourced from countries with lower welfare standards by saying: “The sheep will come largely from eastern Africa, they will be from the same climate zone, well acclimatized, used to handling, have a much shorter voyage and will die from unstunned slaughter in end destination as they would have at source, unlike Australian sheep. This is a net welfare gain.”

The RSPCA has also welcomed the announcement of an end date for the phase out. “A swift and orderly phase out of live sheep export, with appropriate measures to safeguard animal welfare in the meantime, is the right decision for Australian sheep and Australian farmers,” said RSPCA Australia CEO Richard Mussell.

“We congratulate the government for listening to the science and the Australian community and for outlining a clear plan for phasing out this cruel and unfixable industry – including funding a transition package in the upcoming budget. There has been an extensive consultation process involving every part of the live sheep export supply chain. Now, we have a clear way forward.

“We’re pleased that the government has agreed to practical and tangible measures to support farmers to transition away from this trade. The RSPCA supports these initiatives, such as measures to expand processing capacity here in Australia.”

Mussell notes that 71% of West Australians, including 69% in rural and regional West Australia, support the government’s plan to phase out live sheep export (McCrindle, 2023). Over 43,000 Australians signed a petition calling for a legislated end date to live sheep export this term of parliament – one of the largest parliamentary e-petitions in Australia’s history.

However, Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council CEO Mark Harvey-Sutton denounced the government’s announcement of the package for the phase out of live sheep by sea as a disgrace, saying it was clear that the government was throwing out Australia’s vital agricultural industries in favor of activist ideologies as well as a few votes.

“This is a paltry package that completely ignores the complexity of the Australian sheep farming supply chain. It’s an insulting way to attempt to compensate for a ban that will decimate West Australian farmers and their families,” he said.

He has previously stated that the live export industry has changed. It no longer ships sheep during the northern hemisphere summer; its stocking densities have been greatly reduced and exporters no longer use double-tier vessels. Despite this reform, the Council says that the RSPCA, and aligned activist organizations like Animals Australia, have no hesitation in misrepresenting the industry that supports thousands of jobs and countless regional communities across Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

“Rest assured, this will be an election issue in West Australia at the next federal election and potentially across Australia.”

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