By national rural reporter Kath Sullivan. 5-6 minutes
An exemption to live export laws intended to improve animal welfare could be granted before the laws come into effect, allowing more than 50,000 Australian sheep to sail to the Middle East during the northern summer.
- About 56,000 sheep are ready to be loaded on a ship with six crew infected by COVID-19.
- The ship won’t be cleaned or loaded in time to sail before exports to the Middle East stop on June 1 to protect animals from heat stress.
- The Agriculture Minister says an independent regulator could allow the shipment to go ahead.
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has told the ABC the Al Kuwait, docked at Fremantle with at least six crew infected with COVID-19, won’t be cleaned or loaded in time to sail by June 1, when the three-and-a-half-month ban on sheep exports comes into effect.
“It will miss the deadline of 1 June for the moratorium on the northern summer exports, but there’s an exemption in the legislation for the independent regulator to grant approval for that ship to sail after 1 June, particularly in light of these circumstances,” Mr Littleproud said.
“But that would be at the discretion of the independent regulator, not me.”
In March, the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environmentannounced a ban on live sheep exports to the Middle East from June 1 to September 14, due to the increased risk of heat stress.
“The changes will see improved animal welfare with a focus on conditions to manage the risk of heat stress during the northern hemisphere summer,” the department said at the time.
About 56,000 sheep are ready for loading on the Al Kuwait.
The Al Kuwait was expected to export 56,000 Australian sheep to the Middle East before a ban on sailing comes into effect on June 1.(Supplied: Rural Export and Trading, WA)
Mr Littleproud said they were in good health and distanced himself from a potential exemption, saying the independent regulator would need to make a quick decision about allowing the exports to take place.
“We don’t want to see this go too deep into June, but there’s a decision for the independent regulator,” Mr Littleproud said.
“I won’t be making a recommendation or making any of my personal views known to the independent regulator — that would be inappropriate,” he said.
“It is up to them to make their determination, that’s what the Australian public would expect. They’d expect that the live sheep that go into the Middle East do that in a safe way.”
‘Difficult to return sheep to paddocks’
Mr Littleproud said there were now “limited options” for dealing with the sheep.
“Those sheep have passed through biosecurity and it would be difficult for them to enter back into paddocks around Western Australia,” he said.
“The boat needs a deep clean and we have to work through the welfare of the crew and understand that and work with the company to see if other crew can take over.
“If that’s the case, that’ll evolve over the coming days.”
Mr Littleproud estimated a shipment of live sheep could be worth up to $12 million.
The formal ban on live sheep exports followed an industry-led moratorium in 2019 after a public campaign to end the tradey.
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud announced sweeping changes to the live export sector following a review by the Department of Agriculture.(ABC News: Sean Davey)
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which led calls to ban live exports, said alternative markets for the sheep should be found after slaughter at West Australian abattoirs.
“Under no circumstances should exemptions from regulations prohibiting the export of sheep between 1 June and 14 September be granted to accommodate this consignment,” said the RSPCA in a statement.
“This would subject the sheep to unacceptable levels of heat stress and [possibly] death due to extreme heat and humidity in Middle Eastern waters at this time of year.”
Sheep ‘well cared for’
State-based lobby group WA Farmers said there was no cause for animal welfare concerns.
“The stock due for departure are being well cared for,” WA Farmers spokesman David Slade said.
“They have access to ample feed and water, with the livestock being held in the usual feedlots. They are regularly monitored by livestock personnel including vets and stock handlers.”
The Al Kuwait’s owners, Rural Export and Trading, WA issued a statement saying it would work closely with WA health authorities following the detection of COVID-19 on the vessel, but made no mention of the livestock.
Earlier this month it issued a statement that said it was disappointed by the Government’s new regulations prohibiting shipments of live sheep to the Middle East over the northern summer.
“Animal welfare is part of good business and has always been a company focus with significant investments in the vessel fleet, feedlot infrastructure and abattoirs which are world class,” it said at the time.