12 Aug 2015

NZ reputation 'in tatters' over Saudi deal

6:15 am on 12 August 2015

Animal advocates and opposition MPs say they are appalled the Government pushed animal welfare laws to the limit in order to fly 900 heavily pregnant sheep to Saudi Arabia.

Nearly all their lambs subsequently died at a New Zealand-funded farm in the desert.

sheep

Photo: 123RF

The Government gave Saudi businessman Hamood Al-Ali Al-Khalaf $11 million in cash, sheep and equipment for the farm, because he was angry New Zealand had banned live sheep slaughter exports due to animal welfare concerns.

Mr Al-Khalaf's influence in Saudi circles meant New Zealand feared it would miss out on a free trade with the Gulf States.

As part of the deal to placate him, New Zealand flew 900 pregnant sheep to his farm in the Saudi desert late last year.

Documents made public last week by the Government, after long delays, show the sheep were so far into their pregnancies when they flew that officials noted the flight was at the "outer limit" of what was legal in terms of New Zealand's animal welfare rules.

They said if the flight did not take place as scheduled, vets would not allow it to proceed.

Animal rights organisation SAFE executive director Hans Kriek said the lambs' high death toll showed the Government made an appalling decision.

"This was not a good decision for the animals, given the fact that so many of the lambs died, which is highly unusual," he said.

"It is my understanding that about 75 percent of the lambs died, so clearly this was bad for the animals, and in the end bad for New Zealand as an exporter as well."

Green MP James Shaw

Green Party co-leader James Shaw Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Green Party co-leader James Shaw said the Government pushed the envelope when it came to the welfare of the sheep, to appease Mr Al-Khalaf, and the lambs paid with their lives.

"The mass lamb deaths were a function of the fact that this was a shonky deal, that had none of the safeguards - that they (the Government) pushed the envelope on the animal laws.

"I think New Zealand's reputation around our animal welfare standards, around our corruption and bribery reputation ... is really in tatters internationally as a result of this whole deal," he said.

Labour Party primary industries spokesperson Damien O'Connor said nothing about the Government's Saudi deal surprised him.

"This whole deal pushes the boundaries in every single way possible."

Sheep fit to be flown - MPI

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) said it was confident the sheep were fit to be flown, as they were scanned before they left and did not abort on the flight.

It could not provide any details on the mass lamb deaths, and New Zealand Trade and Enterprise is refusing to make public an animal wefare report it prepared on the incident.

The newly released documents also make clear that flying the 900 sheep to the desert was stage one in the Government's Saudi plan.

It intended to ship 45,000 more sheep and 4,000 cattle to Saudi Arabia between September and November this year.

It is not clear whether those shipments will go ahead or whether New Zealand taxpayers will foot the bill if they do.

The Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy declined to comment, saying he had nothing whatsoever to say about any aspect of the Saudi deal. Mr Guy opened the Saudi agri-hub last year.

MPI said it had not received an application to export more livestock to the farm.