Animal activists and farmers are at odds over whether the gruesome deaths of hundreds of sheep in Australia this year could have be prevented.
At least three trucks laden with animals have crashed in the past fortnight, causing many livestock deaths and injuries. On Tuesday, dozens of sheep were killed when a truck driver overturned his vehicle while trying to avoid being stung by a bee near Ballarat. Injured sheep had to be shot by police. A day earlier, dozens more were killed when a truck rolled near the NSW and Victorian border in Wodonga. Last month, a nine-year-old girl died after a fully loaded sheep truck rolled down an embankment in western Victoria.
In July, a truck carrying 400 sheep rolled on a Melbourne freeway overpass, showering cars on the road below with animals. And in January, 200 dead sheep were strewn across a rural road after a horror crash in central western NSW. Other incidents occurred throughout the year, many including cattle.
A map showing road accidents in 2011 and 2012 where livestock were killed
Animals Australia, the organisation that this year helped expose the inhumane treatment of livestock exported to the Middle East, said the welfare of animals during transport around Australia remained a serious issue.
Executive director Glenys Oogjes said the closure of small local abattoirs and the common practice of selling animals at saleyards rather than direct to the buyer meant more trucks were on the road and driving for longer, increasing the potential for accidents.
“Crashes are a real concern for us,” she said.
“We need some major reform so that farmers, agents and all involved in the selling process ensure that the animals travel the least distance possible. In my view, saleyards are something that should be phased out in favour of direct selling.”
The animal rights campaigner conceded there were few other realistic options to transport animals in Australia other than by road. She also said it was difficult to tell whether the number of crashes had been growing or whether they were simply receiving more attention following recent revelations of the brutal slaughter of Australian livestock overseas.
Australian Livestock and Rural Transporters’ Association executive director Philip Halton said the number of sheep killed in crashes was small compared to the number transported to other farms, saleyards, abattoirs or ports.
The RSPCA estimates around 480 million animals are transported across the country each year.
“A crash is a very serious thing and the worst thing possible to happen so you always try focus your time and energy on making sure it doesn’t happen,” he said.
“But clearly they occasionally do, but they are a very infrequent event.”
The association is working to improve how emergency services and authorities respond to accidents when they occur.
Enforceable standards for how animals must be treated during road transport did not exist until late this year. Not all states have enshrined them into law.
The RSPCA, which was involved in developing the rules, said the introduction of the laws was essential because transport – particularly during loading, unloading and in the aftermath of an accident - caused stress to the animals.
RSPCA scientific officer Melina Tensen urged truck drivers to respect their cargo by driving responsibly.
“The driver has responsibilities in terms of driving to the conditions - not only the weather, but poor roads, hilly roads or whatever it may be on those regional roads,” she said.
“I always find it very suspicious when these accidents happen on a bend and that often suggests to me (the driver) was going too fast or was fatigued.”
Mr Halton said Victoria was the only state that required specialised training for livestock truck drivers but NSW was currently moving towards doing the same.
NSW Farmers' Association has previously defended the practice of transporting livestock by road, saying it was not practical to transport them via rail and other means.