IN THE NEWS: Vets join calls to end live sheep exports in northern summer

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IN THE NEWS: On MAY 8, 2018

WA government and federal Labor want immediate halt but Farmers Federation says industry can be fixed.

The Australian Veterinary Association has recommended an end to live sheep exports to the Middle East between May and October, saying that there is no way to eliminate the risk of sheep dying from or suffering heat stress during those months.

The recommendation was made in a scientific review of the dangers of heat stress released by the peak veterinary body on Monday ahead of the government-ordered McCarthy review on the same topic, which could be released as early as Friday.

It follows a push from the Western Australian government and the federal opposition for an immediate halt to the summer trade and has been welcomed by animal welfare organisations.

The AVA review also recommended that the space allocation for the majority of sheep on live export ships, which fall in the 40-60kg weight range, be increased by at least 30%.

It said that sheep should be individually tracked with electronic ear tags, to ensure the weight ranges used to calculate stocking densities are correct, and also said that aggregated voyage data including key animal welfare indicators "can and must be allocated" so that future research is based not just on mortality data, but on the level of suffering on board.

The AVA review considered the same body of scientific and industry research that Dr Michael McCarthy has been asked to consider, including a number of research papers written by McCarthy himself.

The agriculture minister, David Littleproud, ordered the McCarthy review last month in response to shocking whistleblower footage of a heat stress event in August 2017 that resulted in the deaths of 2,400 sheep.

He has previously said that he will "have to listen" if McCarthy concludes that there are no conditions under which the trade can continue.

The footage triggered protests in Australia and Israel, and last week 60 leading rabbis signed a letter calling for the end to live export.

On Friday the National Farmers Federation visited parliament in Canberra to press the case for retaining the trade. Its chief executive, Tony Mahar, said there were ways to fix the industry without resorting to a ban or a suspension.

"We're not entertaining the idea of a suspension. We want it fixed ... whether it's destocking rates or better ventilation, better boats, vets on boats, cameras on boats, there's ways to fix this trade and we think that a ban or a suspension is lazy politics, lazy policy," he said. "We're up for the challenge to fix it."

The AVA concluded that while animal welfare science has advanced "significantly" since the beginning of the live export trade "the current standards do not reflect these advances."

It found that space requirements for sheep on live export ships set out in the Australian Standards for Live Export (ASEL) are "are not based on allometric principles or empirical evidence" and have not changed significantly since 1981.

The review said the ASEL space requirements are significantly below the minimum space required to avoid adverse animal welfare outcomes in every weight class except sheep weighing more than 90kg.

A proposed 17% increase in space allocation — the level imposed on recent shipments by WA company Emanuel Exports following the release of shocking whistleblower footage of a mass mortality event on one of its ships in August 2017 — would be "well below what is required to reduce adverse welfare outcomes" for all but very small and very large sheep.

It said that "irrespective of stocking density", sheep on live export ships that depart Australia for the Middle East between May and October will "remain susceptible to heat stress and die due to the expected extreme climatic conditions during this time."

Of the 51 live sheep export voyages between 2005 and 2017 with a mortality rate of at least 1.5%, the review found 16 occurred in August and 30 occurred from July to September. The agriculture department only conducts mortality investigations if the mortality rate reaches 2%.

"It is possible that decreased welfare during high mortality voyages could be the result of atypical conditions," the AVA said. "However, the few available reports of voyages where ASEL mortality limit was not exceeded indicate that animals experience heat stress even during typical voyages."

The WA agriculture minister, Alannah MacTiernan, said the AVA review supported her call for a summer ban, and called on Littleproud to announce his decision on the summer trade "as soon as possible" to allow farmers and the livestock industry time to prepare.

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