A MASSIVE 300,000 head of sheep were slashed from the live export figures in 2020, according to Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment's (DAWE) December trade figures.
Last week DAWE, Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) and LiveCorp all released their latest data on the live export trade showing that sheep exports were down 27 per cent at 811,511 head in 2020 compared to 1,118,499 in 2019.
Former Rural Export and Trading WA (RETWA) managing director Mike Gordon said he wasn't surprised by the decline in numbers because 2020 had been a challenging year for the industry.
RETWA is the biggest exporter of live sheep from Australia, working in conjunction with Emanuel Exports.
Mr Gordon said RETWA had a few hold ups with vessels in port due to COVID-19 and also because of injunctions by activists in Western Australia and in South Africa, which wasn't helpful.
He said RETWA's parent company Kuwait Livestock Transport and Trading (KLTT) filled some of the shortfall from Australia by taking a couple of consignments out of South Africa - where it was building its business supply chains to sure up numbers, particularly during the June-September moratorium period, after stricter regulations in stocking density requirements in Australia limited the numbers a vessel could take to the Gulf States on any one voyage.
"There were high prices for sheep in 2020 and about 1.8 million head of sheep transferred to the Eastern States, which is a big chunk of the market," Mr Gordon said.
He said the industry had almost become totally WA focused and "isn't what it used to be".
RETWA managing director Murray Frangs said there was a "new normal" for the live sheep trade to long-term markets in the Gulf States, which meant shipments would likely be fewer than in the past and numbers similar to 2020 figures.
Mr Frangs said the company was working around the Middle East summer moratorium as well as it could and also the need to charter out the Al Kuwait vessel when not in use on the WA/Gulf supply run.
But the two issues pushed out the moratorium beyond the regulated timeframe.
The Al Kuwait's availability would limit the amount of times it would be able to support the WA trade which would maintain that reduced number of sheep exported going forward.
Vessel owner, KLTT, wasn't likely to invest further in another vessel to service Australia because of what it sees as political and regulatory uncertainties for the trade.
Mr Frangs said while Australia provided the quantity and quality that KLTT was looking for to service its markets, it was willing to look to South Africa and Romania to fill the gaps when Australia couldn't supply it.
"When you can't supply, they take the best they can get at the time," Mr Frangs said.
"No one else can do the volume that we can but (because of the moratorium) we are opening up an opportunity for someone to step into that market."
He said the Middle Eastern countries relied on Australia to supply protein because of its cultural and religious practices more so than commercial profitability.
KLTT's South African trade, on the other hand, was best described as "exploratory" at the moment and it would likely take a long time for the country to be able to supply the numbers that WA could.
Australian Livestock Exporters' Council (ALEC) chief executive officer Mark Harvey-Sutton said "it is hard to know" how 2021 would shape up for the trade.
He said a combination of the moratorium, COVID-19 and shipping schedules were factors in the decline in export numbers and created an "unreal scenario".
Mr Harvey-Sutton said it was fortunate for producers that they were able to offload to the Eastern States because if the demand wasn't there those needing to reduce numbers onfarm may have struggled to do so with a downturn in the live trade.
He said that there was a case that ALEC may put forward to regulators and government to reduce the moratorium's length after successful voyages revealed that sheep could be transported by sea during the northern hemisphere summer if stocking densities were reduced.
They would focus on the "shoulders" of the window - in June and September.
From all the figures, about 13,000 sheep were exported by sea from other ports outside WA in 2020.
While there was a drop in the yearly total, the December 2020 figures were strong with 109,673 sheep sent to Jordan, Israel, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The largest sheep consignments were 35,579 head for slaughter to Jordan, followed by 33,894 for slaughter to Kuwait and 20,000 to Qatar.
That was a huge improvement on the November figure which showed that 52,415 head were exported from Fremantle in the month, while there were none exported in October for the first time in history (due to COVID-19 detected among the Al Kuwait vessel crew which delayed the shipment in Fremantle).
The MLA and LiveCorp figures also showed that a total of 1,056,466 cattle were exported from Australia in 2020.
That was down 19pc on 2019 figures which numbered 1,303,999.
Feeder cattle made up 628,423 head (down 26pc), slaughter cattle equalled 282,986 head (up 1pc) and breeders 145,057 (down 16pc).
In December a total of 26,542 cattle were exported by sea from Fremantle to Vietnam, Indonesia, Israel, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE.
The largest consignment of cattle was 13,900 for slaughter and 9813 feeders to Israel.
The December totals end 2020 on a high following on from strong November figures when 14,438 cattle were exported from Fremantle - the majority to Vietnam.
Mr Harvey-Sutton said the decline in cattle exports "is huge, but it's not".
"This time last year we didn't know if we were going to be able to trade to Indonesia, and then there's been COVID," Mr Harvey-Sutton said.
"The positive side is that there's been an increase in the number going to Vietnam - which takes the heavier cattle for the slaughter market."