VICTORIAN superfine wool grower Noel Henderson has turned down leadership of the sector’s peak grower body as the sector struggles to reach a consensus on an animal welfare and mulesing policy.
The former Australian Superfine Wool Growers Association vice president was due to take over the ASWGA leadership from Tasmanian grower Simon Cameron, at its annual general meeting in Melbourne last Friday.
His resignation came just before ASWGA members were due to discuss at the AGM a proposal to include a cease mulesing clause in an animal welfare policy.
Avington at Sidonia in Victoria’s north-east ceased mulesing sheep seven years ago and has embraced a number of industry standards and guidelines. These include New Merino, SustainaWOOL, the IWTO Guidelines for Wool Sheep Welfare and the Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines. The flock was the first in Australia to be certified by Textile Exchange’s Responsible Wool Standard, which bars mulesing.
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Mr Henderson said for some time now a number of ASWGA members have been questioning whether the association is capable of change.
“My feeling is it (the ASWGA) is not going to change in the near future — it is going to talk about change, but it is not going to be able to change.
“I just don’t want to be restrained by that lack of momentum,” Mr Henderson said.
He said he was not giving up on trying to influence the industry now, or in the future.
“But I think I can be more effective outside the constraints of an organization like ASWGA.”
Voting on a proposed animal welfare policy for the ASWGA is expected to be finalised this month. The proposed policy was discussed at its 2017 annual general meeting in Melbourne last week, but new ASWGA president Danny Picker would not disclose any details until it was discussed by the New England members and other branch leaders later this month. Last month, Sheep Central was told the ASWGA executive had been canvassing membership support for a ‘cease mulesing’ clause in an animal welfare policy. Members of other ASWGA regional branches discussed the policy wording with then ASWGA president Simon Cameron in the weeks before the annual general meeting. All ASWGA members will be notified of the policy before its general release.
Mr Henderson said Italian and Japanese processors all want change within the Australian industry around mulesing.
“My recent trip to Biella was a privately arranged and I managed to meet with many of the key Italian processors and get their feedback on how they see the Australian market.
“They are frustrated by the lack of commitment to supply unmulesed wool.”
Mr Henderson said he is encouraged by the growing demand from China for unmulesed wool.
“Social awareness will ultimately drive change in regard to animal welfare.
“This may result in some growers moving away from wool sheep but as we have recently seen, with the warning from Meat & Livestock Australia, moving to meat sheep they may confront the same issues,”
“The risk to wool growers is that retailers may start to look for replacement fibre for wool.”
Mr Henderson said Italian processors were “still smarting” from the Australian industry’s decision to renign on the commitment to cease mulesing by 2010.
“There is clear evidence that they have increased their buying out of New Zealand; they’ve gone to South Africa to get supply.
“We’re getting the same information from a Japanese group that we know well,” he said.
“I just don’t think that the industry at the moment, particularly the superfine industry through ASWGA, will be able to be responsive; they are going to take perhaps three to four years.
“I am not Robinson Crusoe in this; there are a number of like-minded growers and there is discussions about how we band together and don’t get dragged backward by their mulesing issue,” he said.
“It’s been behind us for six years.”
He said Avington embraced animal health and welfare standards, environmental management, sustainable production and traceability, because the issues were important and demonstrated social responsibility.
“We tested the way we are operating earlier this year in submitting to an audit by RWS and the result showed we have achieved world’s best practice in our operations.
“This does not mean we accept that the RWS is totally right at the moment for our industry, but there is no other third party certification process available,” he said.
Mr Henderson said the whole supply chain from wool grower to retailer needs to be transparent and consistent in quality standards to satisfy the discerning retail customer.
“To survive in the current and future market individual farmers, and industry organizations, will need to be aware and responsive to demands and not bound by tradition.
“The future for Avington is a focus on working with like-minded wool growers that have a common interest,” he said.
“The only way to address this is to be definitive; say within two years, this is what the Europeans want to hear – they just want a commitment.
“We know you can’t do it tomorrow, but put a timeframe on it – it can’t be 10 years.”
Mr Henderson said the membership about 10 years ago was 210 and today it is probably about 90.
“Those people just haven’t dropped off the map, they’ve decided to change their enterprise or go and do something else, or they are still growing superfine wool, but they’re not members.”