THE decision by Kuwait Livestock Transport and Trading (KLTT) to send its vessel, the Al Shuwaikh, to South Africa to collect a load of sheep instead of returning to Fremantle is no surprise and a "told you so" moment for the Federal government and Independent Regulator.
KLTT said it would need alternative markets if Australia's live sheep export trade could not provide them with sufficient numbers and have been warning of such action since May 2018.
KLTT has been lobbying the State and Federal governments for a continued supply of live sheep as a matter of food security for the Gulf States it supplies, but with a three-month moratorium in place from June-August 2019, and the subsequent decision by the regulator to extend that by three weeks, it appears no one has been listening to what the market wants.
During the three-month pause KLTT secured thousands of live sheep from Romania on at least two different consignments and has now managed to source what could be more than 65,000 sheep from South Africa.
Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA president Tony Seabrook said this was something that "we said was going to happen".
"We now have about 65,000 sheep left in WA that might have gone out, with the vessel heading to South Africa it was a lost opportunity for WA growers," Mr Seabrook said.
"That's $7 million not injected into the WA sector."
He said the Department of Agriculture and Water Resource's decision had branded Australia as an "unreliable exporter".
"KLTT opening up a market out of South Africa was the last thing that we needed," he said.
"There's no ESCAS and they will load it to capacity and away it will go.
"That market didn't exist but now it exists - they have an alternative market.
"They spent more than three months looking elsewhere."
Mr Seabrook also said the regulator's decision to place a "blanket ban" on all sheep exports to the Middle East during the moratorium was "unnecessary" as sheep could have been sent to other destinations outside of the Persian Gulf without being affected by the humidity experienced off the coast of Qatar during the northern summer months.
"The Independent Regulator is living in an isolated tower," he said.
"The department has been heavy handed and has regulated without regard to the industry and the consequences for producers.
"DAWR staff are so aloof and detached from the issue, it is dazzling."
Mr Seabrook said he had "no doubt" that KLTT would maintain the markets it has found in Romania and South Africa because they had put in place the logistics and structures needed for those markets.
The decision is a blow to WA producers who have supported the trade for years and have managed their operations around supplying the trade with sheep that don't fit the local processor requirements.
Corrigin sheep producer Steven Bolt said it was "disappointing for WA sheep producers, that we've lost a market due to the summer pause".
"I understand the company's decision (to send the Al Shuwaikh to South Africa), they need food security and a reliable market to provide that," Mr Bolt said.
"But as a WA producer there are some challenges with that.
"Water and feed supply are extremely challenging for some growers due to a lack of winter rainfall.
"It's going to cause issues with growers looking to offload.
"With a delayed return of the next vessel growers will be forced to hold on to the wethers for a longer period than anticipated."
Mr Bolt said it was hard to say what impact the pause in trade has had on prices but "there has definitely been a reduction in price" for wethers.
Market reports suggest shipping wethers are worth more in the sale yards than they were last year at $130-$140 per head but when there are fewer competitors prices drop.
Some producers have said they are receiving 25 per cent less for their sheep than they were before the moratorium started.
Mr Bolt said he knew of some truck loads of sheep that had gone into Eastern States feedlots to meet processor supplies, but that had largely ceased.
"I've said it before that growers will run less sheep and run a lower risk sheep enterprise if live export markets are lost, which will in turn put more pressure on local abattoirs," he said.
"It is really concerning, where we are going at the moment.
"We've got a sustainable industry and market in front of us that has been successfully supporting growers for the past 40 years.
"The State Minister should be looking to support the current industry and embrace the changes over the last 12 months."
Mr Bolt called on growers to "start voicing their concerns to government on behalf of the industry and let them know the potential impact on your business and communities".
He also said the industry looked forward to working with the new Interim Inspector-General of Live Animal Exports Ross Carter to achieve positive outcomes in the future.
Mr Bolt is a director of The Sheep Collective that posted footage on Twitter of sheep entering the Peel Feedlot in preparation for voyage on the Al Messilah scheduled to load on September 22.
The importance of live exports to WA's sheep industry has been confirmed by new research showing nearly 30pc of sheep and lamb turnoff went into the trade over the past five years.
Analysis carried out by Mecardo, funded by LiveCorp and Meat and Livestock Australia, shows that nationally, almost half of all revenue generated by live exports is retained on farm, earning producers around $100 million per year on average.
LiveCorp chairman Terry Enright, also a WA sheep producer, said there were many others in WA who were also heavily reliant on the trade.
"Fodder manufacturers and sheep buyers, for instance, derive 75-100pc of their income from live exports, while it provides 25-50pc of the income earned by veterinarians in the supply chain," Mr Enright said.
"Nationally, the report shows direct employment of 1037 workers on-farm, and 3443 people across the supply chain."
Mr Enright said while numbers had dropped over recent years, it is still a vital market.
"The national sheep flock has fallen dramatically since the end of the wool reserve price scheme in the 1990s, and that's reflected in live export numbers," he said.
"However, it gives producers another buyer for surplus sheep, especially in WA.
"The port at Fremantle handles more than 80pc of all live sheep leaving Australia - around 1.5 million a year.
"In times of drought that outlet is even more important, giving producers a way to reduce stocking numbers and protect their pastures by offloading wethers while still retaining the breeding ewes needed to rebuild their flocks when the time comes."
Live exports are less important to other States, representing an average of 5pc of annual sheep and lamb turn off in South Australia, just 0.3pc for Victoria and 0.1pc for the remaining States over the past five years.
Although the analysis shows that in periods of high turnoff the trade provides vital support to producers.
During 2000 to 2010, the sheep flock in New South Wales declined by 44pc.
The annual percentage of sales to live exports during this period was more than four and a half times higher than the average for 2014-18.