Understanding the ban on live sheep export

Australian Farmers unpack the Australian government’s recent announcement to phase out live sheep export by 2028, its expected impacts, and the concerns it raises for the future of Australia’s sheep industry.

The Australian government’s recent announcement to phase out live sheep export by 2028 marks a significant shift in the country’s agricultural systems.  

This decision has sparked considerable debate, and it is essential to understand its implications for the agricultural sector, particularly for sheep farmers and the businesses that rely on it – think shearers, truck drivers, livestock agents and the communities these jobs support. In this article, Australian Farmers unpacks this decision, its expected impacts, and the concerns it raises for the future of Australia’s sheep industry. 

What is live sheep export? 

Live sheep export involves transporting sheep from Australia to international markets, primarily in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. This practice has been a cornerstone of the Australian agriculture industry, providing significant economic benefits and supporting thousands of jobs.  

In 2019, over 1.6 million sheep were exported from Australia, generating substantial revenue and fostering strong trade relations with importing countries. Western Australia singlehandedly accounts for 99% of Australia’s live sheep exports.  

The live sheep export industry not only supports farmers but also creates employment opportunities in related sectors such as transport and logistics. 

Why has the government decided to phase out live sheep exports? 

Farmers have been left shocked after Agriculture Minister Murray Watt announced a radical four-year timeline to phase out live sheep exports.  

The announcement coincided with the release of a highly anticipated report by an independent panel set up to examine the growing concerns over animal welfare.  

Animal welfare advocates immediately hailed the news, having long campaigned for a ban.  

The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) warned the announcement legitimises extreme animal activism at the expense of farmers and their families, demonstrating that no agricultural industry is truly safe from ideology-driven policies if it means scoring political points. 

Conditions on live export sheep are carefully controlled. Photo: Australian Livestock Exporters Council

What measures are in place to ensure animal welfare on the ships? 

The Australian government, along with industry bodies like LiveCorp, enforces strict regulations to ensure the welfare of exported sheep. These standards are underpinned by science. 

These measures include comprehensive animal welfare guidelines that must be followed during the entire export process. Monitoring systems are in place to ensure compliance with these guidelines. Pre-export inspections and veterinary checks are conducted to ensure the health of the animals, and onboard care during transport includes appropriate feeding, watering, and ventilation. The trade is also paused during the northern hemisphere summer. 

The live sheep export trade has worked hard to significantly improve animal welfare standards – Australia has some of the highest standards of animal welfare in the world. Animal welfare measures are now collected on every voyage, and community support for the industry is growing. The industry has proven it is meeting and exceeding government-set metrics on animal welfare. 

Mortality rates on ships are the lowest on record, widely considered to reflect animal welfare outcomes. The average annual mortality rate for 2022 was 0.14% – one-sixth of the rate a decade earlier.  

Will the ban impact the economy? 

The live sheep export industry contributes substantially to rural economies, providing income and employment to thousands of Australians.  

The Department of Agriculture estimates that live sheep exports generated over $92 million in revenue in 2020, highlighting the financial significance of this sector.  

The government has indicated that support measures will be in place to assist those affected by the ban and has encouraged farmers to consider transition strategies to mitigate the impact. These include exploring alternative markets, increasing domestic processing capabilities, and investing in value-added products. 

Farmers have argued the four-year transition window won’t be nearly enough time to adjust and there are concerns about the financial strain this transition will impose. 

WA sheep and grain farmer Jamie Spence said: “A ban on live sheep to the Middle East would be a backward step for animal welfare because Australia holds the highest standard of welfare when it comes to the export market.”

How will the ban impact farmers? 

Farming organisations have expressed deep concerns about the potential impact of the ban on the sector. There are significant concerns among stakeholders about its potential economic and social impacts, and what it will do to worldwide animal welfare standards. 

The live sheep export industry has been a significant economic driver, supporting rural communities and contributing to national revenue. It has created many employment opportunities for farmers and workers in transport, logistics, and other related sectors.  

Live sheep export has also played a crucial role in strengthening Australia’s international trade relations. By supplying high-quality livestock to key markets, Australia has built strong trade partnerships and diversified its agricultural export portfolio. These relationships have been beneficial for both the Australian economy and the importing countries, fostering mutual growth and development. 

For many farmers, live sheep export represents a relief valve in Western Australia when dry conditions mean feed availability is low. These farmers don’t have the opportunities farmers in the eastern states have to move sheep to greener pastures.

The loss of this market is expected to see the Australian sheep flock diminish which would lead to reduced profitability and financial strain, particularly for those in rural areas where alternative income opportunities may be limited.  

The ban could result in job losses within the live export supply chain, affecting not only farmers but also workers in transport, logistics, and other related sectors.  

The viability of sheep farming without the export market is another major concern, as farmers may struggle to find sufficient demand for their products domestically. 

Animal welfare checks are in place throughout the process. Photo: Australian Livestock Exporters Council

Why don’t we just process the sheep in Australia? 

Firstly, Australia’s domestic processing facilities are at capacity because the industry struggles to find workers. Secondly, the markets that import live sheep, don’t want processed meat. There are a number of reasons, including religious grounds, the lack of refrigeration, and the meat then becoming too expensive. Food insecurity is also a major concern in these countries that depend on importing their food.  

These markets have made it clear, if they can’t access live sheep from Australia, they will import them from other countries that don’t uphold the same animal welfare strategies. Farmers and industry groups have raised concerns about how this move will be a backwards step in global animal welfare standards. 

Final thoughts 

The Australian Government’s decision to phase out live sheep exports by 2028 represents a significant change for the industry. While the ban aims to improve animal welfare, it fails to recognise the positive aspects of live sheep export and the world-leading animal welfare standards it has achieved. By understanding both the benefits of the trade, stakeholders can engage in constructive dialogue and work towards a sustainable and prosperous future for Australian farming. 

Kimberley Furness

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