Sheep industry veteran says it’s time to move on from live export fight and focus on new markets

Sheep industry veteran says it’s time to move on from live export fight and focus on new markets

In short:

A veteran of Western Australia’s sheep industry says farmers should focus on new markets, not on fighting the live export ban.

Rob Egerton-Warburton says while the fight has been gallant, the ban is now legislated and would take years to overturn, causing more uncertainty. 

What’s next?

The Kojonup farmer says the industry should open up new international sheep markets.

A veteran of Western Australia’s sheep industry says producers should focus on new markets instead of continuing to fight to overturn the live export ban.

Rob Egerton-Warburton has farmed for nearly 30 years near Kojonup, running 20,000 merino sheep in the industry’s heartland.

Over the next four years, live sheep exports by sea will be phased out after legislation passed federal parliament overnight.

He said while it was worthy that farmers and the industry were vocal in fighting the ban, now that it was legislated, it was time to focus on maintaining the industry with new opportunities.

“A lot of us have been really watching this for 30 years … we’ve always had in the back of the mind that one day this will be a political decision,” Mr Egerton-Warburton said.

Industry needs to move ahead

Mr Egerton-Warburton said while he thought the Keep the Sheep campaign was commendable, campaign groups continuing to fight the legislation should transfer their energy elsewhere.

The federal opposition has promised to overturn the ban if it forms government.

Kojonup, 260km south-east of Perth, has long been prime sheep farming country.(ABC Great Southern: Andrew Chounding)

“I don’t think it’s going to happen. I think the industry really needs to look at it and go, ‘What are we going to do? We need to focus on what we’re going to do next’,” he said.

“If it suddenly gets reversed in three or four years, it’s not going to serve you very well. That’s too much uncertainty.

“In many ways we need to suck it up and go in and get the best deal possible.”

The former Sheep Cooperative Research Centre board member said the industry should concentrate on opening up new international sheep meat markets.

“It’s going to be difficult,” he said.

“I’m an optimist, I’d like to things are going to get better, I have to be as I’ve lived through a pretty dramatic period of wool and sheep industry.

“I don’t want [the sheep industry] to end, it’s been a great trade to Western Australia. I’m sticking with merino because I believe it is a fantastic product — I think the world will really want it.”

Farming lobby groups have vowed to doorknock in marginal Labor-held seats in a bid to overturn the government at next year’s election.

Fedearl Agriculture Minister Murray Watts has been criticised heavily by WA’s sheep industry for his decision to introduce a ban on live sheep exports by sea from 2028. (ABC News: Marco Catalano)

Mr Egerton-Warburton said lobby groups should have seen the writing on the wall and helped the industry by working with Agriculture Minister Murray Watt on a longer and better transition away from live export.

“They are a lot to blame for the circumstances in agriculture,” he said.

“When signalled it was happening, instead of being combative, they should have been in the room with him talking about it. They’re not going to change his mind.”

Industry looking at new options

Mid West cereal and sheep farmer Ben Royce said a limited amount of his flock went to live export, with the majority going to local abattoirs.

He said the decision would still have an impact on his business, as other producers who were now involved in live export would be looking for new options.

“They’ll be looking for local markets which we supply to, it’ll just be an oversupply of a market that’s already quite tight to a degree,” he said.

Sheep producer Ben Royce is hopeful the live export ban will be overturned one day.(ABC News: Chris Lewis)

“Not a lot of abattoirs are opening up, a lot of them are closing.

“It’ll just make something that’s difficult, a little bit harder.”

Mr Royce said he was disappointed by the decision but still hoped it may be overturned.

In the meantime, he’s making plans to work around the ban but is unsure how long that will be sustainable.

“The sheep numbers in Australia, if they keep declining, I can’t see it being a good thing for anyone here in Australia, not just for sheep farmers but everyone else as well,” he said.

“It doesn’t really distil a lot of trust in Australia as a country to supply meat to the rest of the world — it should be growing not decreasing.”

Mr Royce is a fourth-generation sheep farmer but fears there may not be a fifth.

“We may not have a choice in the future, or my children may not have a choice,” he said. 

“It may be made for them unfortunately by people who aren’t on the land and don’t understand what the impacts are.”

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