Live sheep exports – the story so far
In the four months that have passed since the first broadcast of the vision of the disaster that is the live export trade, so much has changed. We thought it would be interesting to take this chance to reflect on how far we have come in the past four months.
The story began with a brave whistleblower.
The shocking footage of sheep starving to death, dying from disease or heat stress on the Awassi Express was shown on Sunday, April 8. Faisal Ullah secretly filmed the footage during five long voyages. The footage showed lambs who had just been delivered being trampled, sheep that were unable to move, and dying from heat, dehydration, and starvation. Crew members also threw a live animal overboard. We knew that as difficult as it was for us to watch the footage, our only hope of stopping this horrific act was to make sure as many as possible saw it.
The government responded by conducting three reviews.
Initial reactions to the video were universally angry and sad. David Littleproud held a news conference the day following the broadcast of the video. He described it as “disturbing” and said he was “shocked” and “gutted” by the footage. The RSPCA held a similar press conference that day at Parliament House, and Minister Littleproud was also present.
A flood of phone calls and letters were sent to Minister Littleproud and the government MPs. Our website launched a portal that allowed supporters to contact political leaders directly and express their concerns. We also encouraged them to support a ban on live sheep exports. In just a few short days, thousands had written and phoned their politicians to let them know how they felt about the live export industry.
Minister Littleproud appointed live export veterinarian Michael McCarthy on April 10 to conduct a short and sharp review’ of the live sheep exports during the summer in the Middle East. He also set up a whistleblower line for people to lodge complaints or give information about the industry.
Sixty minutes broadcast footage from a second incident, in which abattoir workers were seen in the Middle East hurling and beating Australian sheep. The new evidence strengthened the resolve and determination of Australians who watched the video the week before. He was more determined than ever to stop the trade.
The RSPCA has outlined a clear path forward, supported by science and proof.
We called for a halving of the stocking density on all live export vessels, an immediate end to high-risk May to October exports (when 70% of sheep die), and a concrete transition plan to phase out long-haul live sheep exports altogether. We demanded a halving in the number of animals on all live export vessels. Our ‘three-point plan’ was born.
The industry has shown little signs of change.
The trade was not suspended, but the Maysora, the next ship to be loaded with live animals for export to the Middle East, was allowed to depart Fremantle, WA, on April 12, with only a 17.5% decrease in stocking density. Our supporters were furious at the Australian government’s decision to allow the export to go ahead. They sent thousands of angry emails to the government overnight, protesting the decision.
The industry ignored the RSPCA’s offer to send our independent observer onboard live-export vessels. The Department has placed its independent observers on every sheep voyage at the request of the Minister. However, it is still not clear whether these observers have provided any images, video footage, or reports.
The situation has become more urgent as we approach the crucial period of May to October.
Minister Littleproud, on April 19, announced that Phillip Moss would lead a review of the regulatory culture and capabilities of the Department of Agriculture. The Moss Review will, among other things, review and assess the Department of Agriculture’s powers to ensure exporters comply with regulations. It will also examine whether an Inspector-General of Livestock Exports could provide more effective oversight of the regulator.
We wanted to know what Australians thought about the live export of sheep, so we commissioned an independent polling. The results showed that three out of four respondents were in favor of ending live exports. The poll found that South Australia was the most opposed to live sheep exports, and also Western Australia, where the majority of sheep originate and depart.
At the same time, senators and MPs began listening to their constituents and started speaking out against live sheep exports. A growing number of sheep producers have also started to withdraw their support for this industry despite pressure from farming lobby groups. They do not want to see the animals they raised with love and care suffer in the horrendous conditions aboard live export ships.
The RSPCA and Animals Australia held another press conference on May 3 at Parliament House. Together, we committed a combined amount of $1 million in order to assist the industry with the transition to the phase-out live sheep trade. The Australia Labor Party also announced on that day that it was breaking its long-standing support for the sector and would now be committed to phasing the work out if it won the next election.
The RSPCA welcomed in the Senate on May 10 a bill introduced by independent Senator Derrynhinch and Lee Rhiannon of the Australian Greens. The Bill called for an immediate halt to live sheep exports between May and October. It also demanded a halving in stocking density to protect animals against the worst suffering. And a five-year timeline to phase out this industry.
McCarthy Review results were announced on May 17, 2018. Sadly, while the review continued to make improvements, it ignored the science provided by organizations like the Australian Veterinary Association. The government has claimed that it accepts all 23 recommendations. However, the most important one is Recommendation 4, which would end sheep exports in the Northern summer.
The review recommended that the risk assessment model be changed from one based on mortality to one based on animal welfare. It also recommended reducing the number of deaths reported on live sheep ships from 2% to 1%. It still means that on a shipment of 60,000 lambs, 600 can die before the Department of Agriculture is notified. An investigation will be launched. At least 70 studies have been conducted since 2006 when at least 2% of sheep died on a vessel.
While industry continued to delay and offer excuses, courageous politicians took action.
Sussan Lee, a backbencher Liberal MP from the Liberal Party, announced on May 21 that she will introduce a Private Member’s Bill in Parliament for the phase-out of live sheep exports. Sarah Henderson and Jason Wood were both in support of her, as well as several other members of the government.
The WA Government raided Emanuel Exports’ offices in Perth on June 20. This company was responsible for the 60 Minutes shipments. Livestock Shipping Services, Australia’s second-largest live sheep exporter, announced that they would voluntarily halt their operations in the north summer because the government’s improvements to standards had made exports “uneconomical.”
We received news late on June 22 that the Department of Agriculture had suspended Emanuel Exports’s export licence. This was based on not only the Awassi journeys but also multiple historical alleged violations of animal welfare standards.
The Senate passed the motion of Senators Derryn Hinch (left) and Lee Rhiannon (right), which called for compensation to farmers and a phase-out of live sheep exports.
The Department of Agriculture denied EMS Exports’ application to export 45,000 stranded lambs to the Middle East after a few nail-biting days. The Department of Agriculture admitted defeat the following day in the Federal Court lawsuit brought by Animals Australia and that the granting of the permit to Emanuel Exports was illegal.
On August 22, over four months after the Department of Agriculture permanently revoked Emanuel Exports’ export license, we were delighted to hear the news. Other companies began to show interest within hours of Emanuels’s closure, and Emanuels announced that they would appeal the decision.
There’s still much work to be done.
There is much to be done while we wait for our politicians’ return to Parliament and for the dust to settle after the political turmoil.
We must maintain the momentum. We are closer now than ever to ending live sheep export. We can make sure that your local MP is aware of the importance of protecting Australian sheep against live export by contacting them and asking for their support.