Live Export

Opinion: Live sheep ban, through a different lens

Livestock veterinarian Dr Tony Brightling June 26, 2024

THE hairy-chested agri-politicians who are pushing back so vigorously against the Australian live sheep export ban are not serving their constituents well.

Ban or no ban, the live sheep export trade to the Middle East is in terminal decline – not because of animal welfare, but for purely commercial reasons. The recent uptick in exports to Saudi Arabia, with sheep sold to the trade at historically low prices, is a minor blip in an otherwise steady decline.

Dr Tony Brightling

The fundamental drivers of the trade have changed. The Arabian Gulf States are affluent countries with consumer demands shifting from the traditional fresh meat markets of last century to Western style food supply chains.

The sources of live sheep supply have also shifted. Sudan and Somalia are key suppliers of live sheep to the Arabian Gulf States. They have major competitive advantages over Australia – local fat-tail sheep breeds, close cultural ties, proximity to market, lower transport costs, ability to supply regular small consignments and few regulatory constraints.

Romania is also a major supplier of live sheep to the region, with greater flexibility of supply, and much lower delivery and regulatory costs compared with Australian sheep. Australia has gone from the major supplier to a bit player in the trade.

Livestock ship owners recognised these changes 20 years ago.

Ageing fleet

At any given time during the 1990s, there were 10-12 large livestock carriers (70,000 – 110,000 sheep) engaged full-time shuttling back and forth between Australia and the Middle East delivering livestock.

Today there are only seven large livestock ships that could potentially load in Australia. But six of these have long-term engagements in the Atlantic, delivering stock from South America to the Middle East and Turkey, and over the last two years have rarely, if ever, come to Australia.

Container ships, car carriers and the like are typically scrapped at about 25 years of age. Only one of the seven large livestock carriers that could potentially load in Australia is less than 20 years old.

Three are more than 30 years old and two are more than 40 years of age. They are near the end of their working lives – at least from Australia.

For a very old livestock ship the cost of compliance with Australian Maritime Safety Authority requirements is enormous. Over the next two years the older ships in the fleet will almost certainly be either scrapped, or more likely be allowed to run down with minimal maintenance, trading solely from South America, where maritime safety requirements are lax.

As far as I am aware, there are no new large livestock ships under construction.

Ship owners are not willing to invest the tens of millions of dollars required for a new large livestock vessel that meets Australian standards when there is a flotilla of small, low-capital cost and largely unregulated vessels meeting the trade’s requirements in the Red Sea, Arabian Gulf and Eastern Mediterranean.

There is a long lead time bringing a new or converted livestock carrier into service. By May 2028 there are likely to be only two large livestock carriers accredited to load sheep in Australia – if they are not engaged elsewhere in the world. There will also be a handful of small vessels, that might deliver occasional boutique consignments, but no big number of sheep, and at great cost per head.

Animal welfare concerns, climate change with record high temperatures in the Gulf States, the northern hemisphere summer blackout, hostilities in the Middle East, ESCAS and ever increasing regulatory costs further increase the level of difficulty for Australian sheep to compete in the market.

Instead of giving WA sheep producers and live export service providers false hope that live sheep exports will once again be a substantial, sustainable, reliable and profitable business for rural WA, our industry leaders should recognise commercial reality and encourage those in the live export supply chain to review their business plans and prepare for the inevitable – ban or no ban.

Rather than a ‘die-in-a ditch’ pushback strategy, our industry leaders should accept commercial reality and argue long and hard for as much transition support as possible.


  • Author Tony Brightling is an Australian veterinarian who has worked with the live export trade for more than 30 years as an industry representative resident in the Middle East, livestock exporter, veterinarian and industry consultant.






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  1. Mike Rocha, June 30, 2024

    Please ban live animal exports.
    Animals welfare should come first.

  2. Peter Small, June 28, 2024

    Tony Brightling offers a sober, rational and informed assessment of the future of the live sheep trade.
    This trade slowly disappeared from the eastern States and New Zealand a long time ago, and it hasn’t lead to the collapse of the sheep industry. One can only wonder at what is so very different about Western Australia that preservation of this trade becomes so desperately important.
    On many issues today our legislators and our citizens are so poorly informed they easily get trapped by pressure and lobby groups espousing emotive arguments.
    Thankyou Tony Brightling; your assessment must surely give all participants sound information on which to ponder.

  3. Bryan Balmer, June 27, 2024

    Thanks Tony for raising another element of the live sheep export ban. The commercial realities — reduced market demand — have been obvious for some time, but the age of the livestock ships and and our increasingly uncompetitive freight charges were not so obvious.

  4. Jennifer Buckmaster, June 27, 2024

    I’m really grateful as a broadacre sheep farmer and Merino producer to finally hear the truth behind the decline of a somewhat fickle trade. Knowing that the death of this trade is inevitable is helping farming, and families like mine, make decisions about transitioning away and utilising the government’s payment package.

  5. David Thompson, June 27, 2024

    The best (by a long way) article on the live sheep export industry. Finally, someone from within the industry is giving an objective, articulate and reasoned assessment on the future of the live sheep export industry.

  6. David Griggs, June 26, 2024

    Well said Tony, the first sensible logical well set overview of the industry, unlikely to make any sense to the ranting politicians.

  7. Katrina Love, June 26, 2024

    They don’t believe it when they hear it from us “activists” … maybe they’ll believe it from one of their own.

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