New Sheep Importation Rules: The Pros and Cons

Last month, I read news of changes being made to the rules associated with importation of sheep (live, embryo, or reproductive material) from New Zealand. There seemed to be some confusion amongst breeders about what this change might mean to their business.  And further confusion about why the changes were being made.  

Why Does this Change Matter?

It has been well understood by breeders that it is nearly impossible to import sheep from countries other than New Zealand.  Rare breed sheep would not be such a concern if  we didn't have concerns for them in other countries. But it is precisely the endangerment of these rare breeds in overseas countries that has caused the launch of this project to ensure Australia understands and supports their rare flocks.  We are free of diseases that endanger flocks in other countries, even the sheeps native lands. From the prospect of this project, I was particularly concerned about the inability to import from New Zealand because some of the flock sizes of the rare breeds here in Australia are so small that they rely on/require "live" imports to ensure blood lines remain diverse, pure, and not inbred.

Though the information online is extensive, I found that my ability to search through it was complicated by my poor, agriculture vocabulary. For example, the legislation kept talking about ovis aries which was fundamental to the research and I didn't even know that meant "sheep".

So I picked up the phone and spoke with a few different people at the Australian Department of Agriculture and Water Resources.  They quickly identified the right person to deal with my query.   Everyone was very helpful.

Why the Change?

The change has been made by Australia because New Zealand decided (1 Jan 2016) to allow importation of animals from countries that have scrapie. Prior to this announcement, New Zealand, Australia and (possibly) one other country were the only scrapie free locations in the world.

The Rules in a Nutshell

Under the new legislation, there are three "tests" for importing live sheep material. Please keep in mind that these are "abbreviated" from the legislation. A live import is deemed "ok" if:

  1. Animal product was collected prior to 1 Jan 2016. This means that if the semen or embryo was collected prior to this date then it is ok to import; or,
  2. NZ MPI (ministry for primary industries) certifies that no imports have been received from scrapie affected countries. This caveat is because NZ have not yet imported nor have plans to import from scrapie affected countries until after March 2016. So as long as NZ does not accept imports and can certify accordingly, imports of sheep and live sheep products are ok; or,
  3. The donor of product must follow protocol for testing (which includes euthanasia to test brain tissue for scrapie).

All of this means that really there is no change until NZ imports the first animal from a scrapie affected region. Once this import occurs, then option #3 is the only way to import.

The "Gotcha": Susceptibility

It seems that different breeds are more susceptible to scrapie than others. The breeds shown to be susceptible to scrapie have more data (?) available and therefore the test can more clearly determine test outcome. This one seems counter intuitive unless one understands the science (which I do not). In the end, if the breed has not been widely tested, it is difficult to determine with confidence the results of the brain tissue testing.

My read is that this final gotcha may be the challenge for rare breeds that may not have the historical susceptibility and, therefore, lack the testing to give them the "tick".

The Benefits

Aside from the clear benefits of remaining the scrapie free for our own animals' welfare, there are other benefits.  Overseas breeders are still able to import sheep from Australia.  This provides an economic opportunity for our agricultural industry and even the rare breeder.