Each year, the industry sends some 2 million sheep by sea, mostly from Western Australia, to the Middle East and other regions. It’s a long journey, around 15 to 25 days. As many as 70,000 sheep are transported at a time. During the summer months, temperatures can reach well over 100 degrees. Many of the ships are old, poorly repurposed car carriers. The sheep are crammed into ill-ventilated stalls, their own body heat creating what amounts to an oven.
The industry has long had its critics. Sheep deaths are seen as unremarkable: 2 percent of sheep on a single voyage can die without any requirement to inform the authorities. Animals Australia says a death rate of more than 1000 animals per shipment has been common. At times, the death rate has been much higher.
The current controversy began with a whistleblower video shot last year aboard the Awassi Express, a ship operated by Emanuel Exports, Australia’s largest live-sheep exporter. Around 64,000 sheep were transported, of which 2,400 died. The distressing footage — released by Animals Australia — made clear the exhaustion and pain suffered by the animals, and showed dead sheep left to rot among those that were still living.
In the video, shot by a crew member, sheep appear unable to reach food and water, or even to lie down. They stand, and then die, in their own feces.
Australia’s minister for agriculture, David Littleproud, said the footage left him “shocked and gutted.” He spoke about coming from a farming family in which people took pride in the welfare of their animals.
The emotion appeared real, but it wasn’t enough for the government to ban the trade.
The industry promised its own reforms: reducing the number of sheep crammed on each ship and assuring an independent observer would be present on each journey. An inquiry was ordered and recommended increasing the required space per animal by almost 30 percent during the hottest months, and reducing the threshold for notifications to anything over a 1 percent death rate.
The Australian government said on Thursday it would enact the recommendations — yet it still faced criticism from those who hoped the trade would be banned entirely, or at least paused during the hot summer months.
New Zealand effectively banned its live trade in 2003. Saudi Arabia had rejected a shipment of 57,000 sheep, believing them to be diseased. The ship then spent two months at sea while the exporter tried to find a new buyer, leading to the death of nearly 6,000 animals. Following an outcry, New Zealand instead developed a market in what’s called “boxed meat” — which allows New Zealand abattoirs, operating under Halal rules, to supply Muslim buyers in the Middle East.
Supporters of Australia’s live trade say it’s not all about Halal certification. Some communities in Asia and the Middle East lack refrigeration; Australia’s live export trade provides protein in places that cannot be served by “boxed meat.”
Despite these arguments, the momentum against the trade is growing. In Israel, 60 rabbis have recently condemned live exports, with one leader saying that anyone who buys such Australian meat is “partner to and helps those committing an evil crime.”
Australia’s opposition Labor Party — which was initially wary of a ban — has shifted its position, and has called for calling for the industry to be phased out over time.
And some of the government’s own parliamentarians have broken ranks. A former cabinet minister, Sussan Ley, is promoting a private member’s bill to end the trade, to be introduced next Monday.
Ley, a former farmer and shearer’s cook, said the industry has already had enough opportunities to reform itself, telling reporters: “The level of anger and angst in the Australian community has reached unprecedented levels, and that’s no surprise, because people like me have watched this for 15 years. And I used to be the first person to get out of bed in the morning and defend the live sheep trade.”
Certainly, last year’s tragedy is not the first such incident. In 2014, more than 4,000 sheep died from heat exhaustion on a similar trip from Fremantle, on Australia’s western coast, to Qatar. Three thousand sheep died in July 2016 during another shipment also involving Emanuel Exports.
According to Animals Australia, in the five decades since the live sheep trade began, 200 million sheep have been shipped to the Middle East and three million have died at sea. Animals Australia would also like to see an end to live cattle exports, though some argue that industry is better operated; the journey is shorter, the ships are better provisioned and the animals are more robust.
If countries were companies, Australia would have closed down its live-sheep trade years ago. In terms of corporate culture, it would be called “reputational damage” and seen as a cost to all the other things that company did.
Australia once “rode on the sheep’s back,” to use an expression from the time when Australia’s national prosperity was based on wool and meat. Now tourism and educational services are two of the key drivers of the economy — both industries whose success is linked to Australia’s international reputation.
The immorality of the live-sheep trade is a good reason to ban it. Others may prefer the more self-interested mathematics of its impact on Australia’s global standing.
This week’s tighter rules may be an improvement, but animals will still die at sea. Even under the new 1 percent threshold, as many as 600 sheep could die and it would still be regarded as normal operations — not worthy of even a notification.
There will, inevitably, be another incident or another shocking video. In the end, this trade will be banned.