By Boyd Champness

THE resumption of Australias controversial live sheep trade to Saudi Arabia took a huge step forward last week when a trial shipment of 60,000 sheep set sail for the Middle East.

The shipment was the first of six trials to be monitored by the Federal Government and industry to determine whether the live sheep trade to Saudi Arabia could be re-established.

Australian farmers stand to earn hundreds of millions of dollars if the trials are successful and trade resumes.

The other five shipments will depart over the next few months. It is expected that 300,000-400,000 live sheep will be exported to Saudi Arabia during the trials.

The trade was suspended in 1989 due to disease control problems, deaths on route, Saudi complaints about the condition of sheep on arrival and pressure from animal welfare groups.

An attempt to resume trade in 1995 failed dismally, when 30% of the sheep on board became infected with scabby mouth – the disease that led to the suspension of the trade in first place.

Scabby mouth doesnt affect the meat in any way, but is aesthetically unpleasant and often leads to a loss of condition in the animal.

Before it was stopped in 1989, the live-sheep export market with Saudi Arabia was valued at A$120 million (49m) a year, and involved 2-3 million sheep a year.

Exporter Livecorp chief executive Kevin Shiell told The Weekly Times that, since the failed trial in 1995, the Federal Government had put considerable work into developing effective quality-assurance systems.

“The quality-assurance programme includes extensive vaccinations and improved selection and preparation arrangements to ensure the export of healthy, young sheep to the Saudi market,” he said.

“The new protocols we have put in place and the research results have given us a high level of confidence in the shipments.”

The federal Agriculture Minister Warren Truss told The Age newspaper that trade negotiations in Rome last year had made the shipments possible.

“Its a breakthrough after a very long pause in trade, following a series of unsatisfactory shipments several years ago,” he said.

“We at least were partly at fault because we were sending them sheep that didnt meet their specifications; high levels of scabby-mouth sheep that were too old.

“No market can be treated with that kind of disregard to their specifications.”

All sheep exported are initially vaccinated on-farm against scabby mouth and again 14 days prior to shipment.

In an attempt to improve the travelling conditions for the sheep, they will be transported at a lower ratio than in the past, and they will be taken aboard more slowly.

An Australian Government veterinary officer will travel on the ship. Most sheep will be aged from one to two years.