WA sheep farmers have been blindsided after Federal Labor’s secret plan to ban live sheep exports was unveiled, saying the “reckless” move would decimate a $136 million industry and cost thousands of jobs. An animal rights group lifted the lid on Labor’s position on the live sheep trade on Wednesday, after Federal shadow agriculture minister Julie Collins repeatedly told farmers and media the party would announce its welfare policy “later in the campaign”. Labor made its position clear in an animal welfare survey conducted by the Australian Alliance of Animals, with the organisation’s CEO Jed Goodfellow on Wednesday revealing the party had ticked a box to say it would ban live sheep exports if elected on May 21. The national animal protection charity asked all political parties to consider banning the trade within three years, a move supported by The Greens, the Animal Justice Party and the Sustainable Australia Party but knocked back by the Liberals, Nationals and One Nation. Labor took the policy to the 2019 Federal election, promising to phase out the controversial trade over five years if elected and proposing farmers target the domestic processing sector instead. The move would have massive ramifications for WA graziers, who export more sheep than anywhere else in Australia to markets in the Middle East such as Kuwait, UAE, Oman and Israel. The national trade is worth $136m and employs about 3500 people across the supply chain — 80 per cent of them are based in WA — with 603,048 sheep exported from ports across Australia last financial year. Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud slammed Ms Collins and the Labor Party for first telling animal activists what farmers and industry had been trying to find out for weeks. He said Australia’s $1.5b northern cattle industry — which is built almost entirely on the live export of cattle to Indonesia and Vietnam, and still recovering after the 2011 live export ban — would be targeted next. “The fact Labor was prepared to tell activists before farmers, whose livelihoods they are destroying, about a ban is a window into how an Albanese government would treat farming families in this country,” Mr Littleproud said. “This would beginning of the end not just for sheep exports but also beef which they banned previously, costing the Australian taxpayers over $900m in compensation and trashing our reputation with Indonesia. “Labor is offshoring animal welfare standards of live sheep exports to countries in Africa, rather than leading the world on animal welfare that we are doing here.” York farmer Peter Boyle said banning live export would be the “demise” of WA’s sheep industry, and the trade was vital to give farmers another market to sell sheep not suitable for local processing. He has exported thousands of sheep from his farm since 2005 and said staff-strapped processors were already struggling to keep up with the amount of sheep required to be slaughtered in WA. “Live export is crucial for us, it gives farmers another market for sheep that can’t get into abattoirs and aren’t fit for our domestic markets,” Mr Boyle said. “I’m proud to export sheep and extremely confident in the animal welfare standards of the trade. “We all thought Labor would be elected last time and it was a really scary time for industry. “We hope we will be lucky again.” WAFarmers president John Hassell, who farms at Pingelly, said the move demonstrated a “complete lack of understanding” of the nation’s $81 billion agriculture industry. “It is pretty disappointing that Federal Labor, which has a minority of seats in WA, want to come over here and tell us what we can and can’t do,” he said. Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA president Tony Seabrook said Labor’s decision was reckless and irresponsible, and the party had “no understanding” about the importance of the trade to the WA economy. Mr Seabrook accused Labor of throwing hard-working WA sheep producers “under the bus” to “appease a small number of animal activists” in city areas. “It is clear that Ms Collins and the Labor party have little, if no understanding of the value of the the live export industry to regional WA,” he said. “WA is the largest exporter of sheep in Australia, with live sheep exports worth over $136 million — making the trade a vital and important part of the WA regional economy. “Any commitment by Labor, to phase out live sheep exports will only serve to destroy regional jobs, regional communities, regional businesses, and hard-working WA regional families. “It is time for Anthony Albanese’s Labor Party to stop trying to secure inner city votes to the detriment of regional families.” The industry has made huge animal welfare improvements in recent years, with better conditions aboard vessels — including decreased stocking rates — leading to a drop in mortality rates from 0.8 per cent to just 0.2 per cent since 2019. Despite this, the number of sheep exported from WA has declined dramatically, with just 575,529 head of sheep exported last year — 29 per cent fewer than in 2020, and the lowest number since 1969 when 396,519 head were exported. WA Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan said animal welfare concerns were the “biggest existential threat” to the livestock industry, saying farmers needed to “stop flogging a dead horse” and accept the phasing out of live sheep exports was “inevitable”. Ms MacTiernan said she would not oppose the move but had told her Federal counterparts it would be a “significant transition for industry”, and not something that could be “done overnight”. “It’s not just about ensuring we’ve got local processing, there’s going to have to be… an adaptation of all farming systems,” Ms MacTiernan said. “If they were to go down this path, there really has to be an adequate period to enable all of those things to happen.” Ms MacTiernan evaded questions about her personal opinion on banning live sheep exports but said she was a “practical person” and believed working with the Federal Government was the “best thing to do”. “I think aiming for something like 2030, and getting good investment in the interim would be the right outcome,” she said. “I think it’s an opportunity… let’s use this as an opportunity to get a really decent transition plan.” Australia’s live export industry has come under fierce scrutiny during the past decade, with the Julia Gillard-led Labor Government banning the live cattle trade for six months after Four Corners broadcast footage of Australian cattle being mistreated in Indonesian abattoirs in June 2011. The Federal Government was later ordered to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to various cattle companies after a Federal court ruled in June 2020 that the blanket ban was “unreasonable” and “invalid”. The 2011 debacle also led to the implementation of the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System — an onerous set of regulations imposed by the Federal Government to ensure better animal welfare traceability from the farm to the abattoir. In August 2017, live export hit the headlines again after about 2400 sheep died of heat stress on the Awassi Express, a livestock carrier bound for the Middle East from Fremantle. The incident prompted the Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council to voluntarily implement an annual moratorium on live sheep shipments during the Northern Hemisphere Summer. Animal welfare standards have improved significantly since the moratorium was introduced in 2019, with the sheep mortality rate aboard livestock carriers plummeting from 0.8 per cent to 0.2 percent. However, animal welfare groups including the RSPCA have continued to call for the live trade of all animals from Australia to be banned. Ms Collins did not respond to requests for comment.