History of livestock export

Livestock export is the commercial transport of livestock across international borders. The expansion of the trade has been supported by the introduction of ships which are built to carry large numbers of animals.

Bringing animals to New Zealand

Sheep and cattle were brought to New Zealand on sailing ships from Britain and Australia in the 19th century. 

The ships had pens erected on the deck and in the hold for the stock while onboard, food for the stock was also carried and animal waste was dumped in the sea.

The seas were often rough, and the voyages sometimes took more than 100 days.

Steamships that were faster were introduced in the 1880s and had larger carrying capacities.

Exporting stock from New Zealand

Since the 1860s, live animals have been exported by ship and more recently air.

Larger shipments of cattle began in the 1970s and sheep began in 1985. Trade was mainly to the Middle East, where sheep were killed for local consumption because they didn’t have the infrastructure and relied on the supply of fresh meat. Sheep were also supplied for slaughter on religious occasions such as the annual Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).

Numbers exported increased from 416,000 in 1986 to more than a million in 1988–89. After a 1990 shipment in which 12% of the sheep died, a welfare code was introduced to ensure that mortality was no higher than 1%. Powerful ventilation systems, veterinary checks and animal welfare standards were all part of the shipping process.

New Zealand has effectively phased out live exports for slaughter purposes since 2007 due to concerns about animal welfare and subsequent reputational risk.

Current landscape

In 2020, Kiwi exporters sent 113,000 cattle overseas, all to China.

In September 2020, the Ministry for Primary Industries suspended live animal exports after the Gulf Livestock 1 ship travelling from Napier to China sank in a typhoon with 43 crew members and almost 6000 cattle on board. The ship was carrying cattle for breeding from New Zealand to China.

On 14 April 2021, the Government of New Zealand announced that, in order to raise animal welfare standards, it had decided to phase out the export of livestock by sea by April 2023 after a transition period of up to two years. It is the first country in history to do so.


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