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Australia restricts live sheep exports after shocking treatment

© ANIMALS AUSTRALIA/AFP/File | Footage taken by animal activists last year showing overcrowded, dying and heat-stricken sheep on ships to the Middle East shocked the Australian public and prompted new calls to ban the live export trade

SYDNEY (AFP) - 

Horrific footage of dead and dying sheep on ships bound for the Middle East has prompted sweeping reforms to Australia's live export trade, but Canberra stopped short of an outright ban Thursday.

Video images taken last year showed heat-stricken sheep crammed together in small, stifling pens and covered in excrement, shocking the Australian public when it was released by animal activists in April.

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud on Thursday labelled the footage "disgraceful" but resisted calls to outlaw live exports entirely after a government review.

"There will be no ban to the live sheep trade in the Middle Eastern summer," he told reporters.

"However, as a result of this review, we will be making serious and meaningful change to the industry."

Exporters will now be required to increase cargo space for sheep by up to 39 percent, varying according to seasonal temperature, with independent observers to travel on all ships carrying cattle or sheep.

Companies in breach of the new rules could face fines of Aus$4.2 million (US$3.1 million) and directors jailed for up to 10 years.

Animal welfare activists slammed the government response, calling for a ban on the trade or a halt to exports during the Middle Eastern summer.

"These recommendations completely ignore the science, and are not enough to reduce the risk of either consistent harm to animals or the catastrophic conditions we've seen previously," RSPCA chief scientist Bidda Jones said.

But a key agricultural lobby group welcomed the review's recommendations as a "crucial first step" toward reforming the industry.

"We support the future of the trade but there absolutely must be meaningful change," National Farmers' Federation president Fiona Simson said.

"Change that increases oversight and transparency, facilitates continuous improvement and most importantly, upholds animal welfare to the standard expected by all reasonable Australians."

Australia's live animal export trade, worth more than Aus$800 million annually, has been under scrutiny in recent years after footage shot at offshore abattoirs showed cattle being mistreated.

© 2018 AFP