By Boyd Champness

SAUDI ARABIA is looking to Australia once again for live sheep, following an outbreak of Rift Valley Fever in the flock of its main supplier, Somalia.

Live sheep exports to Saudi Arabia were worth A$230 million (£95m) a year to Australia before health complaints wrecked the trade in 1989.

But a decade later, a window of opportunity has opened for Australian farmers to take back the lucrative Saudi market, as long as they can improve the health of export sheep, according to the Stock and Land newspaper.

In 1989, Saudi Arabia began rejecting Australian sheep on health grounds, the main objection being scabby mouth.

As a result, the trade shut down virtually overnight, causing great upheaval in the sheep industry.

Australias live sheep exports went from more than 7 million head, worth A$231.4 million in 1988 to 3.5 million head worth A$75 million in 1990.

Although scabby mouth doesnt affect the quality of the meat, the unsightly mouth sores, which can spread rapidly through a sheep carrier, didnt go down well in a country that eats the entire animal.

But with Somalia – which exports 3 million sheep and goats to Saudi Arabia annually (about the equivalent of Australias share before the trade was suspended) – falling from favour, Saudi Arabia has indicated that it might be interested in reopening the trade with Australia.

But any such hopes hinge on Australias ability to eradicate the disease, with a vaccination programme forming the major plank in the industrys plans.

Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) Middle East livestock services manager Neil Buchanan said Australian farmers had to cater to the needs of their customers because they run the risk of losing established markets to alternate suppliers – yet alone creating new ones.

He told the Stock and Land that Australias most loyal customers, such as Jordan and Kuwait, had grown increasingly frustrated at the high level of scabby mouth (up to 40% in the worst cases) in Australian sheep and had called for it to be eradicated.

Last year, Australia shipped 5.042 million sheep to the Middle East worth A$173 million (£71m) or A$34.40 a head.

Kuwait took 1.53 million head, United Arab Emirates 1.22 million, Jordan 803,000, Oman 475,000, Qatar 458,000 and Bahrain 440,000.

Mr Buchanan said while protecting established markets, vaccination would also assist MLA in its bid to restart the live sheep trade with Saudi Arabia.

Western Australian farmers, who began vaccinating their sheep three years ago, are expected to scratch 8 million sheep with the vaccination this year – with infection levels in that state dropping from 49% to 5-10%.

A dose costs 18 Australian cents (7.5p) a sheep. But if the live trade reopens, Western Australia alone cannot fill the void.