Sheep farming is all Scott knows — but his future is now uncertain

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun14,2024
Sheep farming is all Scott Ewen knows, having grown up and lived on his family farm all his life.
As a third-generation sheep farmer, the 47-year-old father of two hopes his sons will one day be able to continue the family tradition.
“I’d like to think there will be a viable business of some description for the boys to come home to, if they choose to go down this line,” Ewen says.
The sheep producer farms in Darkan, a town in the Wheatbelt region in Western Australia’s south — a small rural settlement that takes pride in its sheep, wheat and cattle.
Ewen acquired more land in recent years to expand his sheep business, predominantly to target the live export market.
But that plan is now under threat after the federal government announced on 11 May that from 1 May 2028.
The government defended the contentious legislation — that would lock in the end date and begin a transition support phase for the industry — as it was introduced to Parliament on Thursday.
The legislation would still allow for live sheep to be exported by air, and cattle to be exported by sea. 

Meanwhile, the WA farming community rallied from far and wide to launch the Keep The Sheep campaign, against the end of the industry. On Friday, a convoy of at least 1,500 vehicles converged on Perth in protest.

A convoy of trucks line a road.

A convoy of at least 1,500 vehicles took place on Friday to protest the ban on live sheep exports. Source: SBS News / Christopher Tan

Growing pressure to phase out the trade

The move comes after growing pressure from animal welfare groups to phase out the live export trade, due to unfavourable conditions onboard, including heat, stress, illness and injury endured on voyages lasting up to 35 days. 
Labor after more than 2,000 sheep died, mostly from heat stress, in 2017 while travelling on a ship from Australia to the Middle East.
A singe sheep at the front of the photo with a flock of other sheep in the background

A flock of sheep on a rural farm in Western Australia, bound for the live export market. Source: SBS News / Christopher Tan

In a statement on Thursday, Agriculture Minister Murray Watt said the legislation came five years after the government’s 2019 election promise and followed months of “extensive consultation, including receiving thousands of submissions, commissioning and receiving a report by an independent panel”. 

Activists have described the introduction of the legislation as a historic day for animal welfare. 

“Ending the live sheep exports trade aligns with modern community expectations on how animals should be treated, not just in Australia but on a global scale,” said Rebecca Linigen from animal welfare organisation Four Paws Australia. 

Vets Against Live Export spokesperson Sue Foster previously told SBS News that while welfare groups were celebrating, there are still four more years of suffering for sheep.
“The outcome as far as being a dead sheep is the same at the end, but how that sheep gets there is extremely different,” she said.
“Once an animal goes to Fremantle Port, they are basically out of all Australian control.”
But for generations, many sheep farmers in WA — like Ewen — have regarded this as an important route.
Most live exports of sheep from Australia are sent from WA farms because the domestic sheep meat market is oversupplied. So, farmers rely on markets in the Middle East.
“There are that many trying to hit the [WA] market, so the buyers have the luxury in just partaking what they want, and they (the sheep) have to be in extremely good condition,” Ewen said.

“This season, it’s been extremely difficult to get our sheep to the local processors.”

Murray Watt speaking in front of a dark grey background.

Agriculture Minister Murray Watt said the government is backing regional communities with its $107 million transition support package. Source: AAP / Mick Tsikas

According to the government’s Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences, live exports provide flexibility to WA sheep farms through an additional market for prime lamb.

If the growing season turns unfavourable for the local producer, they can sell these sheep for live export at reasonable prices.

However, the bureau noted a significant decline in the volume of Australian live sheep exports. 

An industry forced out?

For some time, sheep producers on the west coast have said the government’s decision to phase out the live export trade has lowered confidence in the industry.

Darkan-based farm management consultant Mark Allington said the average sheep price for his clients in the last five years was $105. In the last 12 months, that average has dropped to $45.

A male farmer looking at the camera with a rural farm in the background.

Farm managing consultant Mark Allington says a lot of sheep producers in WA are facing an uncertain future at the moment, despite the support the federal government says it is providing. Source: SBS News / Christopher Tan

“It’s becoming an unviable business, and that’s on top of the cost of running a sheep business, like for Scott [Ewen],” Allington said.

“Fertiliser is at a near-record high — and don’t forget that farmers are like every other household, dealing with the cost of living pressures like rates and fuel.”
Ewen’s sheep business cost has increased by 30 per cent over the last five years, with a 60 per cent reduction in sale price last year.
When defending the move to phase out live exports, Watt cited the decline of the trade from $415 million in 2002-03 to $77 million in 2022-23. He also said demand for processed sheep meat, both locally and overseas, has been “rapidly expanding”.
But farmers like Ewen disagree.
“My personal operation, I haven’t seen a decline,” he said.

“Except this year for sheep going on boats because the boats didn’t come … because of government regulations.”

Photo of hundreds of sheep running away hurriedly

Ewen’s sheep business cost has increased by 30 per cent over the last five years, with a 60 per cent reduction in sale price in 2023. Source: SBS News / Christopher Tan

‘We are backing regional communities to thrive’

The government has set aside $107 million in a transition support package, including funds to expand sheep processing plants in WA to try and boost capacity to buy local meat.
“By investing more than $107 million in an industry worth $77 million, we are backing regional communities to thrive,” Watt said in a statement to SBS News.
He told a Senate estimates session on Thursday that WA sheep farmers did not need to exit the industry. 

“All that would change is their sheep would be processed onshore,” he said. 

A group of sheep looking straight at the camera behind a gated fence

With the local meat market in WA being oversupplied, experts say there’ll be a glut at the end of the season and consequently a number of sheep being put down. Source: SBS News / Christopher Tan

WA Agriculture Minister Jackie Jarvis previously confirmed to SBS News that the end of the industry would cost the state’s economy $123 million each year.

Nationals leader David Littleproud said the government was letting down farmers and the live export industry had implemented animal welfare reforms.
“We should be proud of the fact that Australia is leading the world and has led the world in imposing these standards that have been adopted around the world, but this government wants to cut and run and cut 3,000 livelihoods out of Western Australia,” he said on Thursday. 
The Opposition has vowed to overturn the laws if it wins office. 

Watt agreed the ban was contentious, and that the Senate could choose to hold an inquiry into the legislation in WA.

A burial site for sheep among rural farmland.

Burial sites could be more common as sheep producers are faced with the difficult decision to put down their sheep due to commercial reasons. Source: SBS News / Christopher Tan

The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) warned MPs and senators to “do their homework” before passing the bill. 

“Activists want you to think this industry hasn’t changed,” NFF president David Jochinke said on Thursday. 
“That is completely false. The fact is we haven’t had a serious welfare incident on water since sweeping reforms more than seven years ago.

“Banning live sheep exports means banning something that does a huge amount of good.”

‘An unknown’: A future away from sheep farming

Since the announcement, farmers have started selling excess stock for little to nothing to reduce their sheep numbers, while others with greater numbers are making the difficult decision to put them down.

“I hope that we don’t personally have to go down that line. The next six to seven months will really determine that,” Ewen said.

Large farm land filled with canola sown into the ground

While some sheep farmers will have to start trying their hand at cropping, not all land types are suitable for it in WA. Source: SBS News / Christopher Tan

Twelve years ago, Ewen planted canola seeds to diversify into cropping for supplementary income. This month, his crop sown in April germinated due to a spell of rainfall.

Allington said not all land types are suited to cropping — which poses a challenge in high-rainfall areas like Darkan.
To get his farms to 100 per cent cropping, Ewen said he would have to spend up to $10 million.
As the clock starts ticking, farmers are warning that with fewer sheep in the region, many families will leave rural areas.
“Everything is a bit of an unknown at the minute, but we are not going to not fight this,” Ewen said.

With additional reporting from the Australian Associated Press

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

Related Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *