Live export: RSPCA accused of distorting findings of independent report

Headshot of Adam Poulsen
Adam PoulsenCountryman
Sheep are loaded onto the MV Al Messilah livestock carrier at Fremantle Port.
Camera IconSheep are loaded onto the MV Al Messilah livestock carrier at Fremantle Port. Credit: Cally Dupe/The West Australian

The Australian Live Export Council has slammed the RSPCA over claims the sheep trade is a “disaster-plagued and unfixable practice”, accusing the organisation of “sensationalising” the findings of an independent report into a recent voyage from Fremantle to the Middle East.

The report, commissioned by the Federal Government and released in December, detailed conditions on the MV Al Messilah during a 23-day voyage starting on May 25 last year.

Out of a 53,624 head consignment, 60 sheep died during the journey to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

The deaths prompted a scathing statement from the RSPCA, with the animal welfare organisation also condemning other “concerning events” identified in the report.

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ALEC chief executive Mark Harvey-Sutton told Countryman the figure represented “the lowest mortality rate recorded on a sheep voyage ever”.

“Once again I am disappointed the RSPCA has sensationalised and misconstrued findings in the report of the independent observer,” he said.

“Anyone that takes the time to read the report will note that no adverse animal welfare outcomes were recorded as a result of the issues the independent observer raised, and that the independent observer clearly makes this point multiple times in the report.”

The deaths represented a mortality rate of 0.11 per cent — well below the 1 per cent threshold required to trigger an investigation — and were “unlikely to be linked to any systemic failure by the exporter”, the report said.

The death toll included 30 sheep that were euthanised “as a result of unresponsive infections, lameness and gut issues”.

Of the nine autopsies deemed necessary and able to be carried out by an on-board Australian Accredited Veterinarian during the journey, the main causes of death were identified as “inanition, small intestine abnormalities and one limb injury or infection”.

The livestock carrier Al Messilah berthed at Fremantle Port.
Camera IconThe livestock carrier Al Messilah berthed at Fremantle Port. Credit: Adam Poulsen/Countryman/RegionalHUB

“The 60 deaths recorded on the vessels is actually the lowest mortality rate recorded on a sheep voyage ever, building on a record that already exceeds all other aspects of the supply chain,” Mr Harvey-Sutton said.

“This outcome demonstrates animal welfare is a primary consideration.”

Other issues identified during the voyage included temporary breaches of stocking density requirements in pens during loading and maintenance, and sheep with wool longer than permitted under the Australian Standards for Export of Livestock.

On one occasion, about 5 per cent of sheep were observed “open-mouthed panting”.

While the RSPCA claimed this was a “clear sign of heat stress”, the report painted a different picture.

“When approached by the observer the sheep ceased panting, indicating they were not affected by heat stress to the extent that their cognitive abilities and reflexes were impaired,” it said.

“The sheep were eating well and tolerating the heat.

“None of the voyage’s mortalities were considered to be caused by the effects of heat or excessive wool or hair length.

“Overall, the observer stated that all sheep travelled well and had good appetites during the hottest days and throughout the voyage.”

The report also identified cases of sheep not being able to readily access feed and water due to their horns being “too large or awkwardly shaped to fit through the pen rails”, in breach of ASEL requirements.

However, it was noted that “with some effort, most of these horned sheep were able to access the troughs and were not negatively affected”.

Sheep in pens on the livestock carrier Al Messilah in October last year.
Camera IconSheep in pens on the livestock carrier Al Messilah in October last year. Credit: Adam Poulsen/Countryman

“Two sheep were observed to have greatly reduced access to feed and water and to have lost body condition prior to identification by the AAV and stockperson,” the report continued.

“These animals were later placed in a hospital pen with internal troughs provided to enable them to access feed and water.”

Mr Harvey-Sutton said the concerns outlined in the report were “largely logistical issues associated with shipping thousands of sheep from hundreds of properties”.

“I note they were all addressed with clear communication,” he said.

RSPCA Australia chief executive Richard Mussell said the report further validated the Albanese government’s Federal election commitment to phase out live sheep exports.

“These are clearly inherent problems with the practice,” he said.

“They haven’t been addressed by the industry because they can’t be addressed, regardless of what the industry says about improvements to ventilation.”

With a timeline for the phase-out yet to be announced eight months after Federal Labor came to power, Mr Mussell called on the Government to set a date and swiftly “put in place firm plans to legislate an end to live sheep export”.

The live export industry has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, with the Federal Government in 2019 introducing an annual moratorium on sheep shipments to the Middle East during the northern hemisphere summer.

The moratorium, which effectively bans the trade for three months of the year, was introduced amid public uproar after 2400 sheep died of heat stress aboard the Awassi Express in August 2017.

A raft of regulations including reduced stocking rates and improved ventilation have since been implemented, slashing the average voyage mortality rate from 0.8 per cent to 0.2 per cent.

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