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Media centre

Starving, sweltering and sick — independent data debunks industry claims and reveals the ongoing truth of live sheep export

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  • RSPCA Australia
  • Friday, 31 May 2024

80 per cent of independent observer reports from recent live sheep export voyages say sheep are starving on board, and at least 60 per cent reported animals suffering with signs of heat stress.

These shocking revelations come from in-depth analysis undertaken by RSPCA Australia, of data gathered by on-board Independent Observers from over 53 live sheep export journeys carrying 2.5M sheep between 2018 and 2023.

Analysis of the reports also reveals that over the course of these journeys, more than 6,551 sheep died on board. Most died from inanition (starvation), gastrointestinal disease, pneumonia or injury. Independent Observers do not record how many sheep die as a result of stress, injury or illness before boarding or after disembarkation.

“Put simply, the data doesn’t lie,” said RSPCA Australia Chief Scientific Officer Dr Suzanne Fowler.

“For years now, we’ve heard repeated claims of reform and improvements from live export lobbyists, but we’ve never seen any reliable or independent evidence to substantiate those claims.

“Today, we see — once again — independent evidence that validates the continuing community concerns and irrefutably supports the RSPCA’s concerns that sheep, overwhelmingly, continue to suffer terribly in live export, with alarming levels of starvation, heat stress, injury and illness,” she said.

Over 60 per cent of the reports found clear indications of heat stress in animals on board; half of which included sheep open-mouth panting, an indicator of significant heat stress. Of the remaining, almost 30 per cent of records shared with the public were not sufficient to determine if heat stress was present in the journey or not. Less than 6 per cent of independent observer reports specifically noted no heat stress as present.

The analysis, which was undertaken by the RSPCA’s scientists and independently validated, also suggests around 70 per cent of reports contain issues of non-compliance with the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock (ASEL) requirements. These included exceeding the minimum space requirements for sheep, poor selection and loading of sheep not fit to transport, poor animal handling, poor management of sick and injured animals on board, and animals unable to reach food and water.

According to the reports, the most common veterinary treatments administered to sheep on board were for ‘shy feeding’ and gastrointestinal disease, lameness, injury and misadventure, pink eye, and scabby mouth.

Fourteen of the 53 independent observer reports also indicated issues with ventilation, including sheep being housed in unapproved areas of the ship, hot spots near engine rooms, and the smell of ammonia building up in some pens.

“These reports accord with what we know from the animal welfare science, and they provide further irrefutable evidence of the serious animal welfare issues in live export, that the RSPCA has been voicing for decades, and which still continue today.

“If these problems could be fixed, they would have been fixed by now. While some improvements have been forced upon the industry by increasing regulation over time, in reality, little has changed because little can change; the issues with live export are inherent to the trade and business model, and are unfixable.

“The sooner this trade is gone, the better — the better for Australian sheep, and the better for farmers to move forward with more sustainable alternatives,” said Dr Fowler.

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