Live sheep export: where we are and where we need to go

When we reflect on 2022 for the RSPCA, We’re delighted to see that progress has been made in one of our most long-running advocacy goals – securing that the brutal and inexplicably unfixable live export trade of sheep.

At the beginning of the year, which was in January, we witnessed another poll that proved that more than two out of three Australians remain in support of the end of live export. It was a stark reminder that continuing this kind of practice is contrary to the will that is being expressed by people in the Australian community, regardless of the location they reside in – opposition has been aplenty with the majority of residents of rural or country regions, and nearly 3 out of four Western Australian (where the majority of Australian sheep currently export from).

We were also concerned that the former Federal Government was considering winding back the long-fought Northern Summer prohibition (implemented following the devastating Awassi Expressin 2017) as part of its review of exports of live sheep by sea to and across and through the Middle East. We can now confirm that the federal government doesn’t plan to reverse the prohibition. However, the review has confirmed the extent of the cruelty and ill-effects the trade in question is.

The deep concern about animal welfare was reflected in the campaign for the federal election. As the country prepared for the May elections, We were delighted by the fact that the welfare of animals was an issue on the agenda. We were also pleased to observe that the Australian Labor Party reaffirmed its commitment to the phase-out of exports of live sheep in the event of a victory – an extension of the position they enacted prior to the election in 2019.

We stated back then, with a number of political parties retaining support for a gradual elimination of exports of live sheep during the time of last year’s federal elections up to now, this tense and plagued by disasters, the days of this industry are clearly and predictably over. As of now, we are getting ready to launch our efforts to legislate for the ending of exports of live sheep in the current term of the government. We will not cease until the trade is completed.

Let’s take a moment and think about the reasons why exporting live sheep is a major issue for us.

A trade built on unacceptable suffering

Although the live export of slaughtered animals from Australia is an activity that has been in a state of decline for a few years, it is still practiced today. This is in spite of modern research on animal welfare that has proven the most basic needs for the welfare of sheep are not being fulfilled or secured in live export vessels, and the poor quality of their lives due to this.

Long-haul travel exposes animals to extreme temperatures that result in heat stress. This is caused by the overcrowding of stocking density that hinders them from sleeping and limiting access to water and food. This can slow the identification of injured or sick sheep, resulting in those who are not vulnerable to suffering being a slow-burning death. Pen infrastructures on ships were first constructed in the 1970’s. Interestingly, they have not seen much change in the 50 years since.

Insufficient manure removal or bedding on journeys is also a major problem, not only placing animals at risk for suffering from lameness and diseases but also because of the increase in temperature and humidity, the manure could make a thick, dense layer of sludge that can bog sheep and, if left untreated, they could die within their waste.

Sheep that survive these dangerous journeys may face additional welfare risks at the destination country. Australian regulations and welfare standards don’t protect sheep after they have disembarked. In fact, extensive research from countries that import sheep has demonstrated, time and over time, the inhumane slaughter and handling practices at international ports.

The live export industry evaluates the quality of life for their travels by primarily the number of sheep killed in the process. It is a deficient and widely discrediting method that fails to reflect the number of animals who suffer tremendously but live to tell the tale. This is a sad sign that the focus of the live export industry on the primary indicator of success is the fact that the animals don’t die but suffer terrible suffering during the journey as well as when they arrive at their destination.

The most important aspect for the future of change – where will we be by 2023?

There is good news that we are at the pivotal stage of transformation. We stand a unique chance to make a difference in the lives of thousands of sheep that are under threat of being exported from Australia each year.

However, to ensure this happens for this to happen, to ensure this happens, the Federal Government must legislate a deadline for sheep live exports as soon as it is feasible in the current term of Parliament. In other words, prior to an election for the Federal Parliament, which is scheduled for 2025.

This is certainly the correct choice – as early as 1985 in 1985, the Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare decided that the trade should be stopped due to welfare reasons. Then, in the past two years, different government studies ( Keniry Review 2003; Farmer Review 2011) have concluded mortality rates for exports of sheep into summertime in the Middle Eastern summer are unacceptably high. And, despite the best efforts of industry to address these issues, they are not fixable. Recently, we discovered that even in the midst of severe scrutiny, the sheep being exported from Australia are currently continuing to endure horrific conditions. Eliminating the trade isn’t an entirely new concept, as it’s been done before. The United Kingdom has already banned the practice, and New Zealand will cease live exports completely in April of next year. The continued export of live sheep is at risk of damaging the reputation of Australia internationally and causing negative effects on Australian farmers who are trapped in an unsustainable sector.


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