VALE read with interest the article in The Conversation titled "Why Australia banning live sheep exports may be a net loss for animal welfare" written by an academic who is a non-executive director of Sheep Producers Australia and is on the WA Farmers' Livestock Council. It was appropriate for the author to make that disclosure (routine academic procedure) as the article has statements that potentially reflect conscious or sub-conscious bias to industry and presumably, because of that, failure of careful academic analysis.
The article questions whether there will be a net gain for global animal welfare as more animals will be shipped from nations with lower standards. Most certainly that will occur but many of those countries eg Somalia are much closer (ie less duration of transport stress), already acclimatised to the same seasonal conditions and the sheep in those countries already have unstunned inappropriate slaughter so there is a no net change in slaughter standards compared to the situation for Australian sheep. So yes a slight decrease in shipping standards but a positive net benefit for global sheep slaughter welfare statistics.
The article discusses the value of the trade ($92 million) but does not look at the value of the sheep meat trade: on 2017 figures alone, the total value of sheepmeat production to WA was about $513 million with sheepmeat exports from WA increasing about 40% in value (from 2010-217) to $323 million as a result of increased demand from China, UAE, Jordan and the USA (see: Western Australia’s Agrifood/Fibre/Fisheries/Forestry Industries 2017).
The article then shifts to facts and figures about combined sheep and cattle exports (not exactly relevant to a sheep export phaseout) with comments that the end destinations markets require live animals due to lack of reliable refrigeration or cultural preference. It would appear that this statement may not have been well researched - there is no lack of refrigeration for the Middle East destinations as is quite evident by an analysis of Australia's boxed meat exports (eg to UAE, Jordan, Bahrain etc). Even as far back as 2014, a survey by ABARES concluded that in the Middle East ‘substitutability between Australian live sheep and sheep meat imports has increased in recent years, largely reflecting growth in incomes, urbanisation, refrigeration availability and popularity of western style supermarkets’. This is underscored by the experience regarding Bahrain, which stopped importing Australian sheep in 2014, after which sheepmeat imported from Australia increased over two-fold!
Then there is the graph that seemingly shows ESCAS non-compliance has improved from 2020 but with no mention that Covid largely prevented travel/auditing in 2020-2022. Wait for the figures to go up again now the unpaid auditors (Animals Australia) can again travel!
Then there is a whole lot of information about cattle exports and tellingly, the statement at the end of the article: "Correction: this article originally stated the Australian government wants to ban live animal exports. The proposed ban is for live sheep exports. The article has been amended accordingly."
This article would seem to be more suited to a discussion on a live export ban than a sheep export ban. As it stands, it has included much irrelevant material on cattle, some potentially misleading figures and failed to carefully interrogate the data provided.
VALE respect the right of anyone to have their views heard (a courtesy at odds with farmer treatment of animal welfare advocates at public hearings). However, for Farm Weekly to pick up a submission from a stockman of former years as evidence without examining it a bit more closely is poor journalism.
The former stockperson claims that he is "pretty sure you haven't heard much from someone with my background, at these meetings"...WRONG veterinarian Lynn Simpson, a veterinarian for 57 live export voyages, made a submission
Then the claim: "The pad in the footage had clearly been watered, although this provides short-term relief, in the long-term it's a disaster." WRONG. Pad watering is an absolute no-no in managing heat stress as it increases humidity and wet bulb temperature. It may have been mooted as an idea in the early 2000s but was quickly discarded. Wet pads, as per even recent peer-reviewed scientific papers by an accredited shipboard veterinarian, Dr Renee Willis, are a sign of heat stress and correlate with panting score. The wet pads on the Awassi Express were due to heat stress not due to a rubbish stockperson or vet making a mistake - this is simple physiology and has been known since the early days of Murdoch University Research (Barnes, Stockman, Beatty etc).
Then there was the claim: "On my most successful voyage I had zero mortalities." COMMENT: Parliamentary records back to 2005 show there has never been a sheep voyage to the Middle East with zero mortalities and the information in submissions should have pertained to sheep voyages. This comment, if accurate, must pertain to a short northern cattle export voyage or a very small consignment of sheep to SE Asia.
"On my worst voyage, I recorded a mortality rate of 0.8 per cent - not because of conditions onboard - but because of an aggressive and rapid spread of pneumonia." COMMENT: this mortality was rare on sheep voyages before the changes in space allowance post Awassi Express (2018) and again, suggests a cattle voyage. And yes....the maiden voyage of the Awassi in 2014 was ....you guessed it, a cattle voyage (mortality 0.18%). Of course, the question also has to be asked whether he refers to "his" consignment on the ship or the ship itself...yes they look aft inividual consignments on these ships.
Then there is the concerning comment about Draxxin: "With quick intervention by injection of the drug Draxxin, I slowed mortalities to only acute cases". COMMENT: again this pertains to cattle as Draxxin is not used in sheep. In NZ, Draxxin is a red light antimicrobial (should be highly reserved; this lines up with WHO management of critically important antimicrobials) and as such in NZ requires extra care and oversight in use, likely to be restricted soon to veterinarian use. Yet, in Australia this drug is the mainstay of the live export cattle trade....industry more important than human health!
Regarding crew numbers: "They are very observant and provide 15 more sets of eyes for a stockperson, like me." COMMENT: if the maximum crew for this stockperson was 15, then the ships must have been little bigger than rowing boats. Sheep ships would have a much larger crew than 15 (eg about 50 crew for stock on the Bader, which is listed as one of his ships). Again this comment suggests mainly experience of small cattle ships or caring for small consignments on a larger ship.
Stockperson: "More than 10 years ago, when I first got into live export...You had to be a man". COMMENT: that may have been true for stockpeople but not for the industry - Dr Lynn Simpson.... 57 voyages and definitely female.
And then the old chestnut: "Live export is still being judged for incidents that occurred many years ago." WRONG: live export is being judged for incidents that have occurred repetitively from before the 1985 Senate Select Committee Report right up to 2018 (Awassi Express) and even now (ongoing ESCAS breaches in Oman in May 2023).
Lastly: "I encourage each of you individually to travel aboard a live export ship." COMMENT: good luck with that one...took the ABC years according to Landline and cant imagine any invitation coming to VALE any time soon!
And, as a final comment, it is fascinating that Dr Lynn Simpson is dismissed out of hand by industry because her last shipment was ~10 years ago but the same industry spruiks an out-of-date stockperson who travelled on a number of vessels that are now defunct (Finola, Barkly Pearl, Bader etc) and must have mostly done cattle voyages.
A damning report by Latika Burke in the Sydney Morning Herald has exposed widespread failures of ESCAS in Oman. Animals Australia, the unpaid auditor of end-destination animal welfare issues in the live export trade has meticulously documented the failures and provided the information to the Department.
With the industry very much in the spotlight because of the phaseout consultations, one would have assumed that exporters would have been doing everything in their power to ensure that no problems were detected. Instead it seems yet another major non-compliance of ESCAS has occurred.
It is also reported that The Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council said in 2016 that if any Australian animal was found to have been sold outside approved supply lines and for private slaughter, the exporter should be immediately reported to authorities “to enable remedial actions including the recovery of stolen livestock to be undertaken where possible”. SMH reports that this has not occurred in the latest incidents.
And still they wonder why they have no social licence and why 7/10 Australians support the phaseout.
New independent polling research commissioned by RSPCA Australia in May 2023 confirms more than 7 in 10 Western Australians still want live sheep export trade to end. 71% of West Australians support the Federal Government’s policy to phase out live sheep export by sea. This includes 72% of people in metropolitan WA, and 69% in rural and regional WA. Richard Mussell RSPCA Australia CEO stated “This is what losing your social licence looks like. It’s when everyday Australians are overwhelmingly and irretrievably opposed to your practice and want to see it end, permanently" - Richard Mussell, RSPCA Australia CEO
So, both metropolitan and regional West Australians have not been sucked in by the spin and recognise that live export is and continues to be an unacceptable animal welfare issue.
For this segment, we check previous statements by industry to the ABC just post the Awassi disaster (May 2018) and before the impact of the increased space allowance and the NHS prohibition periods were clearly evident. VALE compares them to the data evident on the Landline footage.
1. "It's a rare move in an industry which usually hides from the cameras and shows just how desperate the trade is to claw back a social licence"
This sentiment is echoed almost verbatim by Mark Bennett in Landline re an industry which usually hides from the cameras. With the threat of phaseout, the industry is again desperate to gain social licence. It seems ABC is allowed access whenever the industry is under threat.
2. "Some groups, including Vets Against Live Exports, have called for a ban on sheep exports during the northern summer."
Indeed VALE did, along with calling for increased space allowance, and the call was heeded by the Government and go figure, the voyage mortality decreased drastically!
3. "Mr Daws told the ABC a seasonal ban "would not be a viable proposition..I think the business would close completely and farmers would be selling their farms."
Yet this didnt happen and now farmers and exporters are clinging onto what was threatened to be a non-viable proposition. Similar scaremongering it seems to the current scaremongering that farmers will go broke if there is a complete phaseout of sheep export.
4."Dr Colin Scrivener is the ship's veterinarian. He has a big job. He's the only health and welfare officer on board for all 68,000 sheep."
How is it that with the post Awassi "new" space allowances, the Al Messilah could carry 68000 sheep in 2018 in May but only had 59000 for Mark Bennetts mid-winter voyage in 2023. Was the 'ABC voyage' a special show-voyage for the cameras or were there different classes of sheep? Surely, the ABC should have probed this knowing previous stock carrying rates on this same ship as documented by their own reporters.
5."But the Awassi Express deaths were not isolated.Two years ago, this ship — the Al Messilah — lost 3,000 sheep. "No, there's not a pattern there at all," Mr Daws said."
No pattern? Just no high mortality voyages on this ship now for 8 years compared to the 8 years prior to May 2018. And, that despite a decreased acceptable mortality limit (2% to 1%).
6. "With 17.5 per cent less sheep on board this voyage, they'll get a little more. "It's a very generous space allocation," Mr Daws said."
For the ABC voyage, the ship had 9000 less sheep despite carrying smaller lambs. Was this an even more generous space allocation? For the cameras?
7."They don't have the same personal space problem that humans have," he said. If anyone looks at sheep in a paddock or on the banks of a dam, they lie on each other — that's the way they behave."
Compare this comment to the photo taken on the Landline voyage which shows that when sheep do have increased space (see below) , they dont actually lie on each other. Some bunching can always occur as these sheep are have to find favourable spots eg better ventilation, away from the troughs etc.
The bottom line is that improvement in animal welfare has come about due to animal welfare groups and not industry. None of these improvements would have been possible if left to industry. They occurred because of a Pakistani seaman, Animals Australia, 60 Minutes, diligent work by VALE, RSPCA and others in the welfare space PLUS the Australian public. The Australian public is right to continue to have concerns about this industry which has consistently denied or glossed over animal welfare concerns. What a shame Landline didnt analyse more closely....maybe the ABC can show a little less positive industry bias in their upcoming programs. Bring back Dominique Schwartz perhaps?
VALE has been checking the facts on the ABC Landline footage of a live export voyage. So far we've exposed misinformation or misleading information pertaining to voyage length, loading inspections, space allocations and necessity of "providing protein" in the form of live ex. Today looks at the ever-lurking elephant in the room: HEAT STRESS.
1. The reporter admits at '29:43 that "there's no doubt it is a challenging environment". The footage also includes historic footage of heat stress on the Awassi Express but at no stage is there any mention of heat stress on this voyage at the coolest time of year. Yet it is present in the footage. Did Mark Bennett not recognise heat stress or did he stay silent?
2. Ironically, as he states "while the fans keep them cool" ('30:33), the footage shows sheep with heat stress panting score 2. Any increase in panting scores above 0 (maximum 4) indicates that sheep are working hard to try and cool down.
3. There is more panting/heat stress evident at '30:36, '31:14, '31:30 and '31:41.
4. At '30:28 the footage shows a Kestrel sensor with commentary that the sensor "send alerts should temperature and humidity rise" (implying that action can then be taken) BUT then what? Remove the sheep? Airlift them out of there? Turn on the air conditioners? These monitors merely serve to record the conditions for the Dept of Ag. Once sheep are on that ship, and the heat and humidity rises, there is little that can be done – these ships might have fans that deliver air at 18 kph but that air is ambient air. There is no air conditioning. If the ambient air wet bulb temperature exceeds the heat stress threshold, sheep get heat stress, experience discomfort and suffering and can die.
5. There is more panting at '30:36, 31:14, 31:30 and 31:41.
6. And at '29:46 there is a bloated, greenish carcase. This only occurs if there is high heat with rapid putrefaction at the time of death (due to any cause but including heat stress) or very delayed discovery of the dead body. Neither would be ideal. There is no mention of the explanation in this particular case.
Note: Department of Agriculture Panting Score 2 Definition
We continue to check the reported facts on Landline 28.5:
Reporter Mark Bennett stated that "most of the animals were able to freely move around".
1. Very few people viewing the images at the following marks: '24:17, '24:39, '29:57, '30:10, '30:21, '31:13 would find that very plausible. It was also interesting that the sheep seemed to have less room on the lower decks despite the fact that these sheep will have the longest voyages - less lighting for filming so less show for the ABC cameras?
2. In one of the time-lapse movies , it is quite clear that some of these sheep do not move around freely and remain in remarkably constant positions whilst they get bumped and jostled. For example, follow the sheep with the red circles through some of the footage. Yep, just different uncomfortable postures at all time periods....not to mention trampling of the down/reclining sheep in the lower left corner (blue circle)
3. It is evident from many of the frames that contrary to the comments made by the onboard veterinarian and implied by the reporter that animals all have room to lie down comfortably at the same time if they choose, they dont - not unless they are the most valuable stock, the lambs.
4. There was the repetition of the "2 week voyage" timeframe even though some of those sheep on the lower decks appear more cramped and will have had 23-24 days onboard before unloading.
Did the ABC not critically assess their own footage which is quite contrary to the commentary provided by the reporter??
VALE continues its fact check on the ABC Landline footage of a voyage on the Al Messilah
1. The stockperson stated that live export was necessary as "these countries need to be fed". Kuwait ranks about 36th on the world wealth list, just behind NZ on 35. They have supermarkets stocking Australian sheep meat. If their population needs to be fed, they can import more meat.
2. Worryingly, for this very short voyage, many sheep were reported to be receiving antibiotics. In Australia, to ensure no antimicrobial residues present (ie to protect human health), these animals would have to have a minimum of 28 days withholding depending on the antibiotics. Yet these sheep do not have individual identification so can be slaughtered immediately after unloading as opposed to Australian meat exports which have strict residue compliance. So, we provide them with some protein and who cares if they get antimicrobial resistance or die of an allergic reaction...all of which can be avoided with exported sheepmeat.
It would have been prudent for the reporter to raise questions about the necessity of live sheep for "protein" in a rich country like Kuwait and also to consider the residues. ABC should have posed the question "Is it really better to have antibiotic laden meat from Australian live sheep 'feeding these countries' vs antibiotic free Australian sheepmeat"? And, "Is there any possibility of reputational damage to our considerably more profitable, antibiotic free export meat trade?
VALE continues its media check on Landline reporting of a live export sheep voyage. Here is Landline Fact Check Installment 2:
1. "23:34 "Teams of spotters look out for the sick or injured drafting off those not fit for travel". This suggests a number of people in a number of groups. Is this correct? Seems unlikely as just not any video evidence of teams ... just one man and another person on the drafting gate. Even if there were 4 people, this is hardly "teams", ABC.
2. "23:34 "Teams of spotters look out for the sick or injured drafting off those not fit for travel". Check the footage carefully. While the "spotter" reaches for his pencil to record the reject, at least one (possibly more) lame sheep hop on by, unnoticed. Not such a stringent process it seems if this happens in 2 seconds of footage!
3. "23:34 "Teams of spotters look out for the sick or injured drafting off those not fit for travel". The clearest evidence of the failure is the 60 sick lambs identified onboard on Day 1 and the other 50 on the next 2 days also. Odd that the ABC didn't question how this was compliant with ASEL or how good the "spotting" process was. There is no doubt from this report (if numbers correct) that ill sheep which would not have been compliant with ASEL were loaded onto this ship. Was it due to the trucking temperatures on 9 Jan 23 and 10 Jan 23, 38 degrees C and 36 degrees C respectively or were they already sick when loaded?
Shame the ABC didn't have the analytic skill to check their facts against the footage. The exporters want us to believe animal welfare is their priority and all problems fixed but significant numbers of sick sheep still get loaded onto the ship. So much for the Farmer Review – over 10 years ago – with same problems evident even on these limited grabs!
After years of being denied access to live export ships, Albany ABC reporter Mark Bennett is suddenly granted access onto a ship. Conveniently, this is in January, one of the coolest months of export with the best, summer-acclimatised sheep. (Note that they didn't invite him in September, October or May...well done Livestock Collective!)
VALE watched with keen interests as we thought we could do a fact check on the report. Here is Landline Fact Check Installment 1.
1. A voyage of 14 days: Sorry Mark, but the Al Messilah left Fremantle on 11 January and arrived in Shuwaikh Port on 25 January. So, yes, 14 days, not including the loading and the unloading of the sheep. BUT the sheep that were unloaded in Muscat on 3 February would have been the first sheep on board in Fremantle (10-11 January) so they would have been on board 23-24 days, 10 days longer than Mark's twice stated 14 days. And..if the ABC had checked, they would have found that from Jan 2013 to Dec 2022, there were only two trips from Freo to Kuwait achieved in 14 days (and none shorter than this). Thus, this became the third shortest trip since Jan 2013. Notably all 3 14 day journeys were to the Northern Hemisphere winter (leaving Fremantle on 7.12.2019 and 3.3.2021).
2. The real clanger is at the 24:46 minute mark showing sheep going into bare floored pens: "This is where the animals will eat, defaecate and sleep on a bed of sawdust". Mark, we aren't sure where you were looking but sheep in routine pens are not on sawdust as the loading footage clearly showed. The only sawdust will have been in the hospital pens (where Dr Reben fell over), the cattle pens, and we also saw some where the necropsies were being done.
So a preliminary check shows that the ABC did not check their facts. We will trickle feed our long list of observations over the next few days.