Condemnation and controversy over live export of 50,000 sheep

By Tracy Brighten

Animal welfare groups and opposition MPs say slaughter, not breeding, awaits livestock export survivors

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The Green party, NZ First and animal welfare group SAFE are concerned the New Zealand government may be using a breeding claim to circumvent the ban on livestock exports for slaughter. The ban was implemented by the NZ Labour government on animal welfare grounds after international public outcry when 5,000 sheep perished in an Australian shipment bound for Saudi Arabia in 2004.

Animals loaded in secrecy

Livestock carrier NADA, registered in Panama, docked in Port Timaru in the South Island on Thursday when 50,000 sheep, and 3,000 cattle were loaded on board the multi-storey vessel overnight. NADA departed on Friday morning carrying the largest ever livestock cargo to leave New Zealand since 35,000 breeding sheep were exported to Mexico in 2007.

The apparent secrecy of the operation, as well as the scale, has aroused suspicion. Before news broke, Primeport Timaru had refused to discuss the shipment and it has not been listed in their shipping information.

Welfare concerns

SAFE is highly concerned about the welfare of the animals on their two week journey, saying that sheep stressed by their environment may not eat and could die of starvation.

“For these animals, a stressful, terrifying weeks-long ocean journey lies ahead with a huge potential for serious suffering,” says SAFE director Hans Kriek.

“No matter what conditions are placed on exporters, live shipments cannot be anything but cruel, and the potentially bad treatment of the animals in the country of destination further adds to their suffering.”

Economic gains

Fairfax Media reported that Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy has given assurances that animals will be looked after – there will be one vet on board NADA – and he defends breeding shipments as a win for farmers and the economy.

“We export a lot of livestock for breeding and they go in to a variety of countries. If you have a look at what’s happening in China at the moment we are exporting I think the average is about 35,000 or 40,000 predominantly dairy heifers a year.”

Livestock export for breeding is growing fast, but SAFE want it abolished on the grounds of animal welfare. There are no guarantees that animals are being used for breeding, especially with such a large shipment.

“Even if that is the case these animals are going to suffer and hundreds will likely die. Many sheep do not adapt to the conditions and food onboard and end up sick or starving to death.”

Kriek also fears animals could be sold on and slaughtered inhumanely. “We are also very concerned about the animal’s eventual slaughter, as countries of destination often use slaughter methods that would be considered cruel, and are illegal in New Zealand.”

Australian sheep death toll

The Australian Department of Agriculture, Fishing and Forestry has reported that, between 2000 and 2012, more than 550,000 sheep have died in the live sheep trade.

Last year, 4,200 Australian sheep deaths were reported to have occurred on a ship bound for Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in September 2013. Labor MP Kelvin Thomson, who wants live exports banned in Australia, said heat stress was “a terrible way to die” with animals suffering convulsions and severe distress.

Lack of space, as well as very high Middle Eastern temperatures were causal factors.

Farmers praise export deal

Fairlie sheep and beef farmer Mark Adams, Federated Farmers South Canterbury branch chairman, told Radio New Zealand that he had no concerns about the welfare of his 1200 sheep included in the NADA shipment.

Neither is he concerned they will be heading for immediate slaughter. “If the Mexicans wanted to buy meat – there would be a cheaper way of doing it,” he said.

But the majority of the shipment is pregnant ewe lambs – a two-for-one deal.

Adams also said that animals had to meet MPI criteria for export. “They were vaccinated for toxoplasmosis and campylobacter and had to reach 40 kg in weight… They also had stringent blood tests by Assure NZ and were shorn within three weeks of departure to reduce heat stress.”

However, with Mexican summer temperatures that can reach 34°C, even without a wool coat, the risk of heat stress in cramped conditions is significant.

Peter Walsh, the livestock broker who arranged the shipment, told RNZ that temperatures would be controlled and there would be plenty of space for the animals, with access to water and pellets they had been accustomed to during the two weeks spent on a feedlot prior to departure. “It’s like a floating hotel,” says Walsh.

This hotel does provide the luxury of rubber matting rather than hard floors, but the food is foreign to sheep reared on grass, and room service of one vet per 53,000 animals could see many animal’s needs unmet.

Adams praised Walsh for the deal that has helped New Zealand farmers after last summer’s drought. “I think Peter Walsh and Associates need to be congratulated for putting together a deal which has taken a lot of lambs out of a farming system under pressure.”

Adams told RNZ that farmers had been looking at an average lamb price of $62. “By signing up to a boat contract we were able to lift that to the early $80,” he said.

Interviewed by TVNZ ONE News, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said Mexico had suffered a “huge drought” and many breeding livestock had been wiped out. The deal was arranged in response. He denied any secrecy. “We can’t keep a boat that size secret.”

Sheepgate scandal

This livestock export controversy follows the “Sheepgate” scandal that has prompted opposition MPs to call for the sacking of Foreign Minister Murray McCully.

According to Fairfax Media, New Zealand Trade and Enterprise admitted that 900 sheep were flown to Dammam farm in Saudi Arabia in October 2014, along with equipment, to set a government sponsored and funded “demonstration farm” to showcase NZ agriculture, at a cost to taxpayers of over $11 million.

It is alleged the farm was to compensate Saudi businessman Hamood Al Khalaf who had invested in a live sheep import business in anticipation of a review on the live export for slaughter ban. He incurred significant losses when the government decided not to review in 2009.

ONE News reports that in setting up the farm, McCully told Al Khalaf that the export of sheep for breeding, not slaughter, could be allowed with a clause about what happens to sheep once they arrive in Saudi Arabia.

McCully agreed to remove the clause, and the NZ government has no access to the farm, which is owned solely by Al Khalaf. Al Khalaf also owns land in Canterbury where sheep on the NADA were held in feedlots prior to their export to Mexico.

As John Key continues the negotiation of a Gulf States free-trade agreement that allegedly stalled after Al Khalaf’s financial losses, McCully’s deal is being called a bribe.

The Green party and NZ First have raised concerns in parliament that the government may be considering a review of the livestock export ban, and after Friday’s shipment to Mexico, Al Khalaf’s business partner is asking why sheep can’t be exported to Saudi Arabia, reports The Dominion Post.

Animals are sentient beings

In the recent Animal Welfare Amendment Bill, animals have been recognised as sentient beings in New Zealand, able to feel positive and negative experiences, including pain and suffering.

Nathan Guy has also said that changes to the Animal Welfare Act will include a 30-day monitoring period of exported animals in the destination country to check they are to be used for breeding purposes rather than meat for domestic consumption.

But this safeguard will be dependent on the rigour of the monitoring, and what happens after the monitoring period is anyone’s guess. New Zealand’s world topping animal welfare standards could be hot air.

The reality is that this landmark recognition of animals as sentient beings will provide little comfort to those animals already at sea.

Image credit: Russell Street on Flickr (Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike licence)

This article was also published on The News Hub