‘Tinging on anger’: Australian sheep farmers in limbo after live export ban decision

‘Tinging on anger’: Australian sheep farmers in limbo after live export ban decision

Sheep farmer Peter Reid leans on the back of his ute and spells out exactly what he thinks of the Albanese government’s decision to end live sheep exports.

“Pretty disappointed actually,” he said.

“In fact, tinging on anger actually. There’s a lot of anger out here in the bush about what’s happening. We feel like we haven’t been spoken to or consulted about this.”

He’s a fourth-generation farmer on the land in Boyup Brook about 270 kilometres south-east of Perth.

Boyup Brook farmer Peter Reid is angry about the move. (ABC News: Anthony Pancia)

He has 13,000 adult sheep, and 8,000 lambs on top of that at the height of the season.

For him, the ban amounts to the Labor government trying to “pacify minority groups” and “chase city votes”, but is a decision which may force him off the land.

“This whole decision there on economic basis, animal welfare, scientific basis has got no foundation,” he said.

“We’ve got a viable industry which brings in a lot of export income for Australia.

“We need to transition out of sheep probably. It feels like we’ve got crosshairs over every merino sheep in WA at the moment. That’s what this announcement’s done.”

Live exports have ‘lost community support’

Agriculture Minister Murray Watt announced a four-year exit plan from live sheep exports on the weekend, with a total phase out by May 1, 2028.

Senator Watt pitched it as “mapping out a plan for the future of the sheep industry”, while meeting an election commitment and bringing an end to a practice already in decline and which had lost the support of the community.

Murray Watt says the government will not add to its transition package. (ABC News: Marco Catalano)

But the ban is facing strong resistance from farmers, livestock exporters and the opposition in Western Australia, where the export is based.

WA Opposition leader Shane Love said it was a “very black day for WA”, while Federal Opposition leader Peter Dutton said he would reverse the decision should the Coalition be elected.

Even Senator Watt’s Labor colleague, WA Premier Roger Cook, has said the end of live sheep exports would cut 400 jobs.

Senator Murray Watt says the live export trade lost public support some time ago.(ABC Great Southern: Mark Bennett)

Australia exported more than 593,000 sheep last year, with almost half of them sent to Kuwait, which was the country’s largest importer of the animal.

Mr Watt, who made the announcement in Perth on Saturday, stood firm.

“I want the WA sheep industry to thrive and grow into the future, seizing what is an untapped opportunity: more onshore meat processing.

Ripple effects

Many farmers believe the ban would cause long-lasting and widespread harm, and the government’s proposed financial support to move towards more onshore meat processing will not work.

To help the industry transition out of the trade, the government announced a $107 million assistance package for producers and to “increase supply chain capacity”.

Sheep on the MV Bahijah were stuck off the coast of WA amid a stalemate between the government and exporter earlier this year.(ABC News)

Caroline Robinson is a cereal, pasture and sheep farmer in the Shire of Narembeen, in WA’s Wheatbelt region, and said the ban would not only damage the sector directly but cause ripple effects right through rural communities.

She said without live trade, the number of sheep in the region would shrink dramatically.

“This is not a transition away from live sheep exports, this is a transition away from the entire sheep industry,” she said.

Caroline Robinson represents several shires in her district.(Supplied)

There are approximately 400,000 sheep across Ms Robinson’s district, which she said supports 180 businesses and contributed almost $19 million in gross value to the economy.

“First and foremost, it affects the farmers, then it affects the small businesses, the transporters, the shearing industry, the meat processing industry, it has tentacles everywhere,” she said.

“Then the third flow on effect is to the community, people, to the numbers you see in schools and the numbers you see using the services in town.”

Compensation ‘misses the mark’

Ms Robinson said the transition “misses the mark”, with the $107 million package including $1.7 million for a transition advocate and $11.1 million in government costs to implement the package, leaving only $94 million for farmers.

But Senator Watt said the government would not add to the package and described it as a “reasonable amount”, despite Premier Cook also saying it was not enough.

Senator Watt told ABC Radio Perth the community stopped supporting live sheep export a long time ago.

“If we hadn’t gone ahead with this it would have been breaking an election commitment which we didn’t want to do,” Mr Watt said.

“But more broadly I’ve recognised previously that the industry has improved its performance on animal welfare, but the problem for the industry is it lost community support a very long time ago.”

“Even research conducted last year in Western Australia shows that over 70 per cent of Western Australians think this trade should end, and that’s in the only state that still does live exports.”

Time frame concerns

The end date for the trade was a recommendation in an independent report, compiled by a panel which consulted with local farmers.

Matt Dalgleish’s agricultural market and economics firm consulted that panel and told the ABC’s Country Hour it recommended a much longer period of eight to 12 years for industry to adjust to life without the live trade.

He said more time was needed to prepare.

“That doesn’t mean you just click your fingers, and everything just magically falls into place in a supply chain, and you just transition overnight, or potentially in four years.

“Those transitions can take much longer and that’s what I think our report outlines. And it’s going to be much harder if the time frame’s short.”

John Cunnington, Chair of the West Australian Livestock Exporters’ Association, says his organisation will fight the decision.(ABC News: Ruby Littler)

The head of WA’s Livestock Exporters Association, John Cunnington, said the industry would fight the decision to the end.

“This is a direct attack on WA producers, and I find it quite disgusting to be playing with people’s livelihoods the way they are,” he said.

“This is standing up for agriculture as a whole, not just the industry, and we will fight it till the end and make sure it’s not phased out.”

It’s already too late for some, though. Peter Reid said the decision had knocked the confidence out of the market.

Peter Reid says farmers are wondering how they can get out of the industry.(ABC News: Anthony Pancia)

“Our bottom line’s impacted,” he said.

“We’re all wondering what we’re going to do to get out of this.”

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