AN effective ban on live sheep exports from WA to Middle Eastern markets is creating extreme anxiety within industry, escalating fears farmers may start shooting their own livestock to avoid starvation, unless the deadlock is hastily resolved.
Local sheep prices have also started plunging, while WA’s ongoing dry season is intensifying pressure with potentially dire feed shortages facing stranded animals.
The Federal government hasn’t issued any export permits amid the market uncertainty that’s escalated over the past few weeks.
Several shipments have subsequently been delayed or postponed causing an estimated backlog of about 120,000 sheep in WA, while ships remain in limbo off the WA coast awaiting instructions.
WA Agriculture Minister Terry Redman held emergency talks with Federal Agriculture Joe Ludwig yesterday to try to advance a resolution for the shipping activity freeze, sparked by what are believed to be extreme commercial tensions in the Middle East.
Mr Redman warned his federal counterpart of the looming animal welfare issues facing WA producers, on-farm.
The chaos started when a shipment of about 21,000 sheep to Bahrain was rejected earlier this month due to speculative claims they’d been infected with scabby mouth disease, causing the consignment’s re-direction to Pakistan.
Animals Australia raised concerns yesterday about reports in local Pakistan media that some of the sheep may have been on-sold in Pakistan, in breach of the federal government’s new live export regulations.
The animal rights group also expressed concerns the remaining sheep were being culled; which was the by-product of a “fast-tracked solution” for the Wellard Rural Exports shipment rejected by Bahrain.
Animals Australia Campaign Director Lyn White called for an investigation into the issue saying the Australian community will “rightfully be outraged once again”.
However, DAFF released a detailed statement addressing the various animal welfare concerns and clarifying several misleading reports.
The statement confirmed local Pakistan authorities undertook a cull of sheep on September 16 and 17 but it had since ceased.
The Pakistani importer is currently working with the courts and Federal authorities in an effort to place an injunction on local authorities, the statement said.
The sheep are currently being held in a feedlot from which they were intended for humane slaughter for human consumption and DAFF has been advised they have adequate food and water.
The statement also said the Australian government was “aware of conflicting and contradictory media reports in Pakistan”.
“The animals were inspected by Pakistan’s veterinary health officials on arrival and were approved as meeting Pakistan requirements,” DAFF said.
“Almost 100 samples were tested by Pakistan’s National Veterinary Laboratories in Islamabad after the first claims of disease were made and all tests conducted reported negative findings.
“If it is found that the government’s stringent animal welfare standards have not been met, we will fully investigate as part of a routine regulatory response.”
WAFarmers President Dale Park said there was a clear lack of accurate information about the real cause for the delayed Middle East shipments out of WA sheep.
“We don’t know a hell of a lot and that’s the real problem - nobody really knows what’s going on,” he said.
“The first ship that went into Pakistan, the government thought they had it all worked out and the people there seemed to want the sheep.
“Maybe there’s something else going on - God only knows what that is - and until you know what it is, you can’t fix it.”
Mr Park said nobody within the industry - including DAFF - was willing to risk exporting any more sheep to the Middle East, in the current tense climate, with Middle East countries refusing to unload.
“They can’t risk another boat,” he said.
“While there’s a chance they won’t unload the sheep when they get to the Middle East, DAFF is absolutely shitting them-selves.”
Mr Park acknowledged domestic animal welfare problems were building in WA with producers growing concerned.
But he stopped short of saying farmers were about to start shooting sheep themselves.
He said several local producers understood they’d sold wethers, which was a relief due to the poor seasonal conditions, and they were due to be shipped early September.
But he said the sheep were no longer considered sold and were now stranded, with a Force Majeure clause exercised on the contracts.
“There’s definitely a back-log developing but the (sheep) prices only dropped to $75 today, so nobody’s thinking about shooting any of their sheep just yet,” he said.
Mr Park said producers would need to start making room on-farm for ewes and lambs in the near future which may force large sheep numbers to hit the market at once, or remain on-farm unsold.
He said growing feed shortages was the main concern.
Growing conditions are patchy in the WA wheatbelt this season due to lack of rain.
But the situation is dire in the southern portion, from around Lake Grace and Newdegate through to Ravensthorpe, where feed is scarcer than other locations.
“Feed really suffers in dry years and that’s why they’d be desperate to sell any of the sheep they’ve got now,” he said.
“These producers thought they’d sold their stock a month ago and expected they’d be all gone in the first week of September but now they can’t get rid of them at all.
“The government doesn’t want to send sheep away anywhere until the exporters have a Plan B; that’s what I reckon they’re saying.”
Mr Park said the Middle East was a complex and difficult market at the best of times - and once a consignment was knocked-back by one country, others followed.
He said it was difficult to have a cast iron contingency plan, as DAFF was demanding, hence the ongoing stalemate.
“It’s best if the people who say they are going to take the shipments, do so in the first place,” he said.
Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA spokesman Sheldon Mumby said the Middle Eastern market ban was causing severe ongoing headaches for WA’s live exporters and producers.
He said sheep prices were dropping steadily and the extended shipping delays would bring further price reductions, in an already difficult and challenging season.
Farmers will be forced to start shooting their stock, if they can’t be sold before summer starts, he said.
“Now’s the time to be selling stock – you can’t have sheep sitting around in paddocks because they’re no longer able to be exported to the Middle East.”
Mr Mumby said DAFF was forcing exporters to guarantee they had an alternative “Plan B” market destination before granting an export certificate, under the new Exporter Supply Chain Assurance Scheme.
Mr Mumby said ESCAS was hurting the live export industry, and consequently producers, by demanding excessive regulations and added costs.
He said demanding a “Plan B” market was “not a commercially viable situation”.
The rejection of WA sheep shipments by Middle Eastern markets earlier this month had nothing to do with animal welfare, he said.
“If it was grain exports from Australia they’d have been rejected also,” he said.
The Australian Livestock Exporters Council declined to comment on the delayed shipments - but acknowledged the situation was “exceptionally fluid” and that the Australian sheep were healthy, in Pakistan.
Minister Ludwig said the live animal export trade was an important one for WA.
“I have spoken to the WA Minister on this issue today and both levels of government and industry are working to identify a solution,” he said.
DAFF moved to clarify speculation it had refused to issue export permits.
“In light of recent experiences in Middle East countries DAFF has sought assurances from exporters about the measures they plan to take to reduce the risks of consignments being refused permission to unload,” a statement said.
“DAFF continues to works closely with the exporters on this matter.”
Speaking in a radio interview on Tuesday, Minister Ludwig declined to speculate on what was happening with the Middle Eastern markets.
He said commercial issues may be going on in the background and “all of that might overlay”.
At the height of the Labor government’s snap Indonesian live cattle exports suspension last year, WA pastoralist Nico Botha threatened to start shooting his own cattle himself, to avoid their starvation, amid speculation it may have been done before television cameras.
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