Australia’s weather extremes are brutal and millions of sheep and lambs are at its mercy. The prediction by the CSIRO regarding climate change is that hot days will become more frequent and hotter, extreme rainfall events will become more intense and the time in drought will increase over southern Australia.
According to Environment Victoria: In Victoria, the two worst heat waves on record have occurred in the past 10 years. In January 2018, Bendigo [an area known for sheep farming]
experienced a record breaking 12 consecutive days over 35°C (breaking the previous record of eight days, set in 2014).
Agriculture Victoria recommends sheep receive shelter from harsh temperature extremes in its guidelines, however there is no legal requirement to do so at farms, saleyards, feedlots or slaughterhouses.
Australia’s weather extremes are brutal and millions of sheep and lambs are at its mercy with little or no regard shown by many of those who profit from their lives and deaths.
“Sheep should be provided with shelter in times of above or below average temperatures.” – Agriculture Victoria
Agriculture Victoria’s guidelines for shelter
Sheep should be provided with shelter in times of above or below average temperatures. This can minimise the impact of climatic extremes and prevent suffering or possibly death.
Heat stress and exhaustion should not occur if sheep are able to find shade and rest during the hottest part of the day.
The amount of shelter provided should be sufficient for all animals to access it at the same time, and stocking rates may need to be adjusted to allow for this. This will prevent overcrowding around areas of shade or water.
Water should be close to shelter and be of sufficient volume to cope during periods of peak demand.
When sheep are in holding yards and feedlots, use should be made of artificial and natural shade to protect them from extremes of wind, heat and cold.
Animals should be protected from extremes of weather.It is important that sufficient shelter is available for all animals at the same time, to prevent sheep crowding and smothering. It is preferable that all animals are able to lie down, as this helps them cool themselves.
Heat Stress on Farms
Sheep are adversely affected by the temperature extremes and can suffer heat stroke and death during high summer. Agriculture Victoria states that the best type of shelter during extreme heat protects animals from the sun and allows for the cooling effect of the wind.
Some options for shelter on farms are:
constructed shelters using materials such as shade cloth, corrugated iron or timber
trees with large canopies — planted individually in fields
naturally undulating paddocks and gullies
shelterbelts — thick hedges of trees
Although Agriculture Victoria gives many recommendations as to the needs of sheep regarding shelter, unfortunately as these are only guidelines, many farms do not adhere to these suggestions. Sheep are left out in the open to battle the extremes of temperatures.
Veterinary experts have identified:
“Temperatures “approaching or exceeding 30°C” as favouring the development of heat stress.”
– “Heat Stress” in Veterinary Handbook
Photo credit: Tamara Kenneally Photography
Heat Stress at Saleyards
The Bendigo Livestock Exchange sold a massive 2.19 million sheep during the 2018- 2020 period, earning it a reputation as the second largest sheep selling center in Victoria. Of those 2.19m sheep, not one was provided with shelter while consigned to the Bendigo saleyards.
According to Environment Victoria, in January 2018 Bendigo experienced a record breaking 12 consecutive days over 35°C (breaking the previous record of eight days, set in 2014). However, despite the area being the location of one of the worst heat waves to have occurred in the past 10 years, sheep sold at the Bendigo Livestock Exchange have no access to shelter. As a result, animals are subjected to scorching hot weather conditions while confined to the facility.
Photo credit: Animal Abuse at Australian Saleyards
Agriculture Victoria, in its Sheep Shelter guidelines, states that: “Sheep should be provided with shelter in times of above or below average temperatures. This can minimise the impact of climatic extremes and prevent suffering or possibly death”. It also indicates that, “It is important that shelter is available to all animals at the same time. It is preferable that shelter includes sufficient room for all animals to be able to lie down, as this assists with cooling”.
The Industry Animal Welfare Standards defines extremes of weather as:
“Temperature and climatic conditions that individually or in combination, are likely predispose to livestock to heat or cold stress. ‘Extremes’ of weather can include heavy rain, hail, snow, chilling wind and high heat, all of which can lead to conditions of heat or cold stress in livestock, particularly livestock unaccustomed to these conditions or that are compromised (eg. young, weak or ill animals)”.
“Victoria’s climate will continue to warm, with maximum and minimum temperatures increasing over this century”. Due to Climate change, extreme weather conditions in Victoria will only increase. As a result, there will be a greater need to protect all animals from heat and cold stress.
Other major Livestock Exchanges located in Victoria provide shelter. Ballarat (selling area only), Horsham, Hamilton, Pakenham and Leongatha all provide shelter for animals, therefore adhere to the guidelines set down by Agriculture Victoria.
Sheep are undeniably adversely affected by the high temperature extremes in Australia and can suffer heat stroke and death as a result. Melbourne Sheep Save believes that the guidelines for shelter listed on the Agriculture Victoria website should be made a legal requirement on all farms, instead of a recommendation. Taking into consideration the predictions regarding the effects of climate change, farmers need to act now to create adequate shelter for the animals in their care.
On 6 January 2021 the Bendigo Advertiser featured this story on Melbourne Sheep Save as we call for shelter to be placed over the Bendigo Livestock Exchange:
Jubb et al, “Heat Stress” in Veterinary Handbook, see also Phillips (2016), p 81.
Industry animal welfare standards pg. 55 Appendix 4: Definitions