A PROPOSED “shoulder period” relaxing reduced stocking rate density over part of the northern hemisphere summer period could encourage live sheep exporters to resume the trade earlier.
That was the message Federal O’Connor MP and Katanning farmer Rick Wilson gave sheep producers attending an Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) regional outlook conference at Narrogin last week.
Mr Wilson told the conference he had discussed a “shoulder period” around the “problem” month of August with Agriculture and Water Resources Minister David Littleproud and departmental officer managing the live export program, Narelle Clegg, at two recent face-to-face meetings.
“August is the most problematic time for shipping sheep into the Middle East and certainly for those heat-related issues,” Mr Wilson said.
“When you look at the statistics there’s no doubt that of the 11 reportable (animal death) incidents since 2011, six or seven have been in August and the others have been scattered throughout the year and haven’t been heat related like the ones in August,” he said.
“So August is the problem.
“We need to recognise and accept that, but I think we can get the same high animal welfare outcomes by tapering off those stocking density reductions after August.”
Mr Wilson said Mr Littleproud had given him a commitment he would “look at” a shoulder period.
Stocking density reductions of up to 30pc were among 23 recommendations adopted from the McCarthy review earlier this year to improve animal welfare standards and requirements for sheep to be exported to the Middle East during the northern summer period.
After the reduced densities were adopted Livestock Shipping Services (LSS), one of the two major live sheep exporters out of Fremantle, voluntarily suspended its voyages to the Middle East over the summer period.
The other major Fremantle live sheep exporter Emanuel Exports had its export licence first suspended then cancelled on August 21 by the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources (DAWR), acting as regulator, after investigation into the deaths of 2400 sheep on board the Awassi Express a year ago.
No live sheep shipments have left Fremantle since June.
Mr Wilson explained to the conference the “official northern summer” period was considered to be May 1 to October 31.
“(LSS) are very unhappy about the 30pc reduction running right through October and I personally agree with them,” Mr Wilson said.
“I think they have a very good case to say they ship all of their sheep through the Red Sea into Turkey and Israel – completely different climatic zones to Kuwait and Qatar and the Persian Gulf.
“So I’m working with the minister to develop a shoulder period.
“Hopefully that will see them (LSS) back in the game (by late September, early October).”
As well, Mr Wilson told the conference, Emanuel Exports planned to contest its licence cancellation at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, but that process will take between six to eight weeks.
To overcome that delay the Kuwaiti Livestock Transport and Trading Company (KLTT) which owns the livestock carriers used by Emanuel, was applying for an export licence in its own right, he said.
“Emanuel has always operated on the behalf of KLTT – basically KLTT bought the sheep as they ran on the boat, it’s their supply chain that operates throughout Kuwait and Qatar (both on the Persian Gulf), the feedlots and the abattoirs,” Mr Wilson said.
“Effectively Emanuel were the people with their name on the licence because under the ESCAS (DAWR’s Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System) scheme somebody has to be responsible for those sheep right through until slaughter.”
Mr Wilson said Ms Clegg had told him on August 23 that the process for KLTT to obtain an export licence “should take between one and two weeks”.
“Their two boats are parked in Gage Roads at the moment.
“If that licence is approved in the timeframe then hopefully we will see buyers out buying sheep in the next fortnight.
“So there is hope,” he said.
Mr Wilson said he also raised the issue with Ms Clegg of why an independent observer had not been on live export vessels.
“Why have we been relying on the owners and the vet on board (to notify DAWR of animal welfare problems)?” he asked.
“While the vets have high integrity, effectively there’s been a conflict of interest there because the vet that is paid for by the owner signs off on the voyage and the way it was completed.
“I think we are well overdue for the department to place an independent observer on those boats.
“It’s going to add 50-80 cents costs (per sheep) for the exporter which will be passed back to the grower of course.
“But I think in terms of securing the industry’s future it’s pretty important.
“Some might say that the Awassi Express situation wasn’t dealt with at the time (by DAWR) and has put the industry in jeopardy, but we will wait and see what Mr Moss has to say in a couple of weeks.”
In April Mr Littleproud appointed public sector integrity expert Philip Moss to review the “capabilities, investigative capacity and culture” of DAWR in relation to regulating the live export trade.
Mr Wilson indicated that report was due in coming weeks.
“The ASEL (Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock) shipping standards are also being looked at,” he said.
“I would like to see, and I’m sure every sheep producer across Australia would like to see, that process happen just a little bit quicker.
“(But) the minister is quite rightly being cautious.
“Public opinion has drifted a long way from live export and as a government we have to be very conscious that public opinion has to be on side and support the industry.
“If we take short cuts or rush some of these decisions we risk losing what public support still remains.”
Mr Wilson went through changes the government had introduced “critical to ensuring the sustainability of the live sheep trade” following vision of heat stressed sheep dying on the Awassi Express first appeared on television in April.
These included addressing an injunction threat from Animals Australia to stop ships leaving port, with opportunity to lodge an injunction brought forward to when the regulator approved the exporter’s intent to export.
“This is early in the export chain and will reduce the risk animals will be left stranded on the boat while the issue is being battled out in court,” he said.
Whistleblowers can anonymously report poor live animal export practices through a free call service and there will be an independent observer program to oversee all live export voyages.
“Through these changes Australia continues to take a leadership position on live exports,” Mr Wilson said.
“This is vital to ensure sheep producers continue to have commercial options for their livestock and it is now up to the live exporters to back up their claim to being the best in the world.”
p Another ABARES outlook conference speaker was Matt Ryan, acting chief executive of the Regional Investment Corporation (RIC) created under DAWR on July 1 – RIC was dubbed “Barnaby’s bank” when former Nationals leader and then agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce first announced it last year.
Despite repeated questions from WAFarmers’ policy officer Kim Hayward and others at the conference, Mr Ryan was unable to give a definitive answer on whether WA sheep farmers, who had previously relied on the live sheep trade for part of their income, were eligible for a concessional RIC loan.
Loans of up to $2 million over 10 years with tailored repayment schedules and variable interest rate currently at 3.58pc and with no ongoing fees or charges are available from RIC under two categories – drought loans and farm investment loans.
Mr Ryan said because the live sheep trade had not been formally suspended he suspected WA sheep producers who had lost income until ships resumed sailing might not meet either of the two RIC loans criteria.