Live export: Australian sheep shipments to Saudi Arabia ‘imminent’ after 12-year hiatus

Headshot of Adam Poulsen
Adam PoulsenCountryman
Workers load sheep onto the livestock carrier Al Messilah at Fremantle Port.
Camera IconWorkers load sheep onto the livestock carrier Al Messilah at Fremantle Port. Credit: Adam Poulsen/Countryman/RegionalHUB

Farmers and live exporters are “very optimistic” the first shipment of Australian sheep to Saudi Arabia in more than a decade will set sail by the end of the year.

It comes after it was revealed in Senate Estimates in late October that major industry player Emanuel Exports had secured approval to re-enter the Saudi market.

Though the company has yet to have a consignment approved — which involves a separate process — the Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council is expecting a shipment within weeks.

“I’m very optimistic we’ll have a shipment before the end of the year, but a lot of things need to fall into place for it to happen,” ALEC chief executive Mark Harvey-Sutton said.

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The Livestock Collective director Steve Bolt said he was “very hopeful” a shipment would be sent to the Arab country before the New Year.

Corrigin sheep producer and The Livestock Collective director Steve Bolt.
Camera IconCorrigin sheep producer and The Livestock Collective director Steve Bolt. Credit: Andrew Ritchie/The West Australian

“I think it’s imminent… and we need the opening of that trade to get more sheep movements out of WA, given the current conditions,” he said.

“We’ve got so many areas with poor seasonal conditions or a really short finish to the season, and there’s big numbers of wethers lined up that that need to make their way off-farm.

“Any additional movement of sheep out of the State will take pressure off, because the on-farm animal welfare crisis that is looming… will be something that’s unprecedented.”

Once Australia’s biggest live sheep market, Saudi Arabia stopped accepting shipments in 2012 after rejecting strict new regulations imposed by the Australian Government.

The regulations were part of the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS), which effectively applies Australian animal welfare laws within trading partners’ borders.

Though a trade breakthrough in early 2021 cleared the way to re-open the market, not a single shipment has left Australia for Saudi Arabia to date.

An industry source who did not want to be identified said this was, until recently, the result of high Australian sheep prices and “intense competition”

“Current sheep prices in WA are helping exporters get a commercial foot hold in the market in competition against supplies coming from Somalia, Sudan, Spain and Romania,” he said.

“Sheep exports to Saudi Arabia are being considered by a number of exporters, (but) regulatory arrangements — aside from an ESCAS approval needed by an exporter — are being worked through to operationalise the trade.”

The source said initial shipments would likely be “relatively small” as importers tested the capacity of their ESCAS supply chains and customer willingness to revert back to Australian suppliers.

The new arrangements with Saudi Arabia put a heavy onus on Australian farmers to vaccinate their flocks against scabby mouth.

But some industry players have blamed the delay on additional regulations imposed by the Australian Government, including a requirement for feedlots to provide a scabby mouth outbreak management plan.

Mr Bolt, a Corrigin sheep producer, said the extra health protocols were “unwarranted”.

Liberal MLC Steve Martin said it had never been more obvious that the WA sheep industry needed extra markets.

“Government’s attitude and response should not be a default ‘no’ to expanding the trade. They should not be putting extra bureaucratic hurdles in the way,” he said.

“The resumption of the live sheep trade to Saudi would be embarrassing for the Labor Federal government who are attempting to paint this as an industry in decline.”

WA exported about 639,000 sheep in 2022-23 — a 41 per cent year-on-year increase.

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