A heartbreaking video of an Aussie farmer digging a mass grave for 3000 sheep highlights a major issue


A distraught farmer has begun digging a mass grave for more than 3000 sheep he’s preparing to destroy because he can’t sell them and has run out of money to feed them.

Wayne Smith runs Caluka Farms in Narrikup in the far south of Western Australia, halfway between Albany and Mount Barker, and is at breaking point.

A perfect storm of crushing factors has combined to decimate the state’s agricultural sector over the past year, and like many, Mr Smith has had his back against a wall.

Yesterday, he shared a heartbreaking video on social media as his “last resort” approaches, admitting he’s been “crying every day” over what’s to come.

“It’s been a very teary day for me,” Mr Smith wrote alongside a video of his “beautiful lambs”. “Started organising a neighbour to dig a pit big enough to put 3,000+ sheep in. I can’t cope with the thought of shooting them. No buyers.”

Farmer reveals sad fate for over 3000 sheep

Despite the price of meat in supermarkets soaring, with supply chain issues apparently to blame, Mr Smith is far from the only producer who’s stuck with animals.

Sheep farmers are battling to find abattoirs to buy their animals, or buy enough of them, and major government reforms have ended what has long been a lifeline for producers.

Overseas, countries that are desperate for quality red meat are importing animals at record levels – and paying handsomely for it – but farmers like Mr Smith can’t benefit.

Tony Mahar, chief executive of the National Farmers Federation, said a mammoth decision like that being made by Mr Smith is a tragedy.

“For a farmer to be considering disposing livestock they’ve cared for is a heartbreaking decision and will always be a last resort,” Mr Mahar said.

Countless scenarios like his are proof the Federal Government needs to reverse its decision to phase out live sheep exports, he said.

“What we are seeing play out is the uncertainty over the proposed phase out is taking a toll on WA’s farming systems,” Mr Mahar said.

“Farmers in the west are also facing extremely dry conditions and the live export trade provides a release valve for the sheep farmers who don’t have greener pastures nearby to move stock to when dry conditions hit and feed availability is low.”

Live exports are a key part of farm management strategy to prepare for dry conditions, such as those choke large parts of WA’s southwest.

The Federal Government has committed to phasing out live sheep exports from Australia by sea, and while there’s a transition period, farmers say the news has led to uncertainty and an artificial early wrap-up of operations.

‘Every last option’

Mr Smith’s eye-opening video sparked a flood of comments from here and around the world, with people urging him to reconsider.

But he explained that it’s “not humane” to let his animals lose more and more weight each week or die of hunger or thirst.

“That is the only reason [to destroy them] – we have no choice when we can’t sell them, can’t feed them and can’t water them. I’ve been crying all day.

“It’s the last resort.”

He said many other farmers who were in his position had already made the tough choice to destroy their livestock.

“I’m just not as strong yet, but there is no other option for hundreds and hundreds of sheep farmers.”

In February, he managed to sell a small number of sheep “at long last” and for a reasonable price, but the buyer was more than 3000km away.

“Freight took a large chunk of that income, but we have been unable to sell sheep to abattoirs here in Western Australia,” he wrote on his website.

For those animals he does manage to get into the local market, the price received is “woeful” – about $1.50 per kilogram.

Some freight flights operated out of WA by Qatar Airways allow for the export of frozen meat to the crucial Middle Eastern market, but services are limited.

“There was a [proposal] with regards to Qatar Airlines to allow as many planes that want to come in because they are the perfect size planes for getting airfreight out for our abattoirs,” WA Farmers president John Hassell told the ABC.

Frustrated farmers have few choices but to sit, wait and hope.

In March, a desperate Mr Smith made another difficult decision – to give up and sell his farm.

“With the government meddling in the sheep market and us not being able to get sufficient livestock into the abattoirs for the past 12 months, the inevitable has happened,” he said.

Farmers are ‘petrified’

Mr Mahar said the live export phase-out might seem like a problem confined to WA, but it’s not.

“Farmers across the nation are petrified. If the government decides to cancel one industry, what one is next in the firing line?

“This is just one of a deluge of Federal Government policies constraining agriculture, taking away our markets, water, workers and land.

“These bad policies are why the NFF launched a campaign Keep Farmers Farming to make policy makers and the public aware of what farmers are facing when all they want to do is get on with the job of growing food and fibre for Australia.”

In the west, dry conditions and a sense from farmers that the State Government is asleep at the wheel have sparked furious scenes.

On Wednesday, hundreds of farmers gathered in Yornup, three-odd hours south of Perth, for a crisis meeting over a significant feed shortage.

The West Australian Government has established a special taskforce to respond to issues plaguing farmers. Agriculture Minister Jackie Jarvis was invited to yesterday’s gathering but did not attend.

Last week, when pressed by reporters about feed shortages and the inability of many producers to sell their animals, Ms Jarvis offered cold comfort.

“If they can’t sell animals, they do have to sometimes make tough decisions, and that does sometimes include euthanasing animals,” she said.

“Farmers need to be prepared, and farmers know this already, that our seasons are getting hotter and drier.”

Yornup cattle producer Michael Campbell was incensed by the remarks.

“I’m actually pretty disgusted by [the comments] because the reality is we’ve been asking Jackie Jarvis to look at ways of alleviating the pressure,” Mr Campbell told the ABC at the meeting.

“And the only comment we get back from her is, ‘No’.”