Live sheep export is back in the spotlight in the leadup to the coming federal election, which is no surprise, given the volatile and disaster-plagued history of this controversial industry.
And what’s also in the spotlight again is the overwhelming community support for a phase-out of this cruel trade.
Not only is live export unacceptable from an animal welfare perspective, but the Australian community has also consistently opposed the trade.
The most recent poll, conducted in January this year, confirmed the majority of Australians – around 2 in 3- no matter where they live, still want to see this practice end.
The poll also showed that nearly 8 in 10 Australians opposed the Federal Government’s recent reduction in the northern summer prohibition. The prohibition was implemented to protect Australian sheep from being exported to the Middle East during the hottest part of the year but recently reduced by 2 weeks to enable exporters to send sheep to Red Sea destinations commencing this month.
This move will see tens of thousands more sheep every year exported in extreme heat and under extreme risk. No wonder the community doesn't support it.
So we’re surprised to hear claims from the industry that it’s only a minority of Australians who oppose live export – because whatever way you look at it, that’s just not true.
The facts about live export
Live sheep that are exported from Australia suffer. Subjected to extremely hot temperatures that exceed their physiological tolerance, many sheep suffer from heat stress. Sheep are exposed to poor handling conditions, and stocking densities that prevent them from comfortably lying down to rest at the same time or easily accessing food or water. Confined to pens where they eat, sleep, urinate and defecate, live export sheep are also exposed to the risk of disease and infection due to stocking density and high ammonia levels resulting from urine and faeces.
Not only do sheep suffer on live export voyages, but their welfare is often further compromised at the destination. Sheep may be subjected to extremely hot temperatures for weeks without shade and little access to food and water at destination ports and feedlots. And finally, subjected to slaughter practices that do not meet Australian standards, because Australian standards cannot be enforced overseas and pre-slaughter stunning is not mandatory in the Middle East.
The economics don’t stack up
For these reasons and many more, live sheep export is an industry that’s been in terminal decline for some time.
While the industry may claim that ending live export will be an end to Australia's sheep industry, an economic analysis conducted by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences in 2021 concluded that abolishing live export will only initially generate a noticeable economic impact, followed by a smooth and relatively low-cost transition to alternative markets.
It’s well past time to plan for the inevitable end of this trade and help ensure a better and more sustainable future for Australian farmers.
Australians have spoken – time and time again ...
Polling commissioned by the RSPCA and conducted independently among a representative sample of 1,500 Australians found more than 2 out of 3 (67%) of Australians still want an end to live export.
To be fair, we weren’t surprised to hear this – when Australians have been asked this question, the majority repeatedly voice their opposition to the trade. It’s notable though that opposition to live export continually remains high – despite a big PR push from the industry to repair its tattered reputation.
And one thing we hear a lot is that it’s just city folk who oppose live export. Well, that’s simply not borne out by the facts. The independent poll showed that two-thirds of Australians, whether they’re in capital cities, smaller cities and towns, or rural or country areas, support ending live export. And Western Australia – where more than 80% of Australian sheep are live exported from – has the highest rate of opposition to live export of them all, with 70% wanting an end to the trade.
There was no demographic surveyed where opposition to live exports was below 61%.
And the rollback of the northern summer prohibition period that we mentioned? Nearly 8 out of 10 Australians do not support shortening the prohibited period and do not support placing tens of thousands more sheep in conditions where their most basic welfare needs cannot be met.
No one can realistically claim live sheep export is supported by the community. The facts are clear – Australians want live sheep export to end.
What needs to happen
Phasing out live sheep exports and supporting farmers to transition to more humane and sustainable alternative markets is the best way forward. It's time for a phase out of live export, a steady reduction in the number of animals being exported and exposed to unacceptable conditions and increasing temperatures, in favour of a chilled and frozen meat trade only. This will at least mean that sheep are slaughtered humanely here in Australia.
That’s what the community wants and expects. And it’s what’s best for the future of Australian farming and our international reputation. It's time for change.
Authorised by Richard Mussell, RSPCA Australia, Canberra