THE National Farmers' Federation says moves by Animal Liberation to fly a surveillance drone over cattle and sheep stations, feedlots and other animal production farms to gather and expose animal cruelty evidence, are unethical.
NFF president Jock Laurie said some NFF members were seeking legal advice to determine if the drone could legally collect potentially damning, but isolated evidence of animal mistreatment.
Mr Laurie was speaking in response to news that Animal Liberation had purchased a drone to monitor specific farming operations.
Mr Laurie said any evidence collected unlawfully by the drone would be inadmissible in a court of law, especially if it invaded individual privacy laws.
He was also concerned the noisy drone may operate over the heads of livestock and cause unforseen damage by spooking the animals.
“How far can our industry continue to face this type of harassment? It just doesn’t stop,” he said.
“This is just a step too far - it’s way too much - and surely it breaches ethical boundaries.
“As producers we understand the laws that we have to work within to care for our animals properly every day, like managing heat stress.
“But the last thing anyone wants is to have one of these drones flying over the top of a feedlot or a paddock when we don’t know how the animals will react.”
Speaking to Fairfax Agricultural Media, Animal Liberation NSW executive director Mark Pearson said his group recently purchased a six propeller, Hexacopter drone from German company CineStar for $14,000 that they would start using this week on specific surveillance targets.
He said an extremely powerful camera was attached to the remote controlled drone and could zoom in long distances to obtain detailed film images and still framed photographs.
Mr Pearson said his group’s legal advice indicated the drone was okay if it flew above 10 metres - to be deemed as operating in non-private air space - and couldn’t film into private residences.
He said investigations were largely prompted by complaints from within farming communities and farmers themselves who made reports via a dedicated 1800 number, to provide information anonymously.
Farmers have complained about animal mistreatment in feedlots and other intensive farming methods, he said, and also about untreated fly-strike, or animals left unsheltered in stressful situations, like exposure to extreme heat and cold, which the drone would now target.
Mr Pearson said facilities would also be targeted in WA and NT where animals were kept prior to loading onto boats for transport to live export markets.
He said Animal Liberation had offices and members throughout the nation that would be trained to use the drone to monitor animal welfare complaints.
Mr Pearson acknowledged most farmers were doing the right thing on-farm but the alleged mistreatment could often involve hundreds, if not thousands of animals that his group was seeking to protect by using the drone.
He said it was difficult to gather evidence without committing trespass which made it inadmissible in court.
Mr Pearson said the drone could fly 2km from the remote operating source and was programmed to return to its landing pad automatically, once the 45 minute power source was identified as running out.
He said any evidence or information relating to animal cruelty, like heat stress, was of public interest and likely to be published in the media.
It will be handed over to the NSW rural crime investigation unit or equivalent authorities around Australia, he said.
If his group is dissatisfied with the investigation’s progress they would contact television producers and individual journalists that had previously expressed interest in animal welfare stories and offer the story and evidence to them, such as ABC’s Four Corners and Lateline and Channel 9’s 60 Minutes.
Mr Pearson said before handing evidence over to police or the media, experts and trained veterinarians would be used to determine the true extent of actual animal cruelty.
“We have to be careful that we don’t make uniformed statements,” he said.
“Most of the intelligence we receive comes from within actual rural communities like people who drive past farms or facilities.
“They call us out of frustration, when they see things going wrong with animal welfare that need fixing and often say, ‘I never thought I’d call you bastards to make a complaint’.”
Mr Laurie said he was worried the drone could gather isolated evidence of animal cruelty that could be portrayed as the “norm” in mainstream media.
“We’re offended by being judged on individual incidents that ignore the vast majority of good practices and the vast improvements in animal welfare made by the industry over a long period of time,” he said.
Mr Laurie said he was concerned animal rights groups would run the evidence past alleged “experts” for their opinions but it would not be sighted by industry members who dealt with animal welfare “day in and day out”.
He said the industry was already subject to a high degree of internal policing and peer pressure around animal welfare, with farmers willing to make complaints about other farmers who do the wrong thing and leave industry exposed.
Mr Laurie said that peer pressure helped create higher animal welfare standards and forced those producers, who were not willing to adhere to accepted practices, out of the industry because they don’t feel comfortable.