By GREG ANSLEY
At sea the smell of a ship carrying tens of thousands of sheep to the Middle East drifts for miles, announcing its passage to other mariners well before its multiple decks come into view.
This week, the political stench from the Cormo Express circumnavigated the world as the 12,700-tonne vessel, Dutch-owned and Philippine-flagged, idled in the Persian Gulf like a plague ship, its cargo slowly dying as port after port refused it entry.
Saudi Arabia rejected the shipment of 57,000 Australian sheep because it claimed too many suffered from a disease called scabby mouth that causes lesions in the animals' mouths and feet.
Jordan has refused to take the sheep. So has the United Arab Emirates. Pakistan turned down an offer to have the entire shipment for free. In Lebanon, the Union of Butchers and Cattle Merchants warned the Cormo Express to stay away.
But a report from AAP yesterday said that under a secret Government deal Australian exporters would buy the sheep back from the Saudis and give them to Iraq for slaughter at Ramadan, which starts on October 27.
For seven weeks, since loading at the West Australian port of Fremantle, the sheep have been gradually expiring: despite claims by the ship's owners that they are in excellent health, animal welfare organisations claim almost 6000 have now died, an allegation that has not been disputed.
Even as the Cormo Express lingered, exports from Australia continued, but under heavy and increasing fire and in contrast to a more cautious New Zealand approach that saw a shipment of 60,000 to Saudi Arabia suspended for fear of a similar fate.
Australia has a lot more to lose. New Zealand sends only one shipment a year to the Saudis, but the live sheep export trade is worth A$1 billion a year to Australia.
In the past 12 months Australia has sent more than two million head to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Jordan, generating not only a strong cash flow for farmers but also an estimated 9000 jobs.
But as shipments to other markets continued despite the fate of the Cormo Express, condemnation of a trade long opposed by an unlikely alliance of animal rights activists and meatworkers began gaining traction.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is preparing to unleash an A$84,000 nationwide campaign lambasting live sheep exports. In Perth, protesters calling themselves Black Sheep demonstrated outside the offices of live sheep exporter Emanuel Exports.
And in southwestern Victoria, the fury of opponents erupted as the sheep carrier Al Kuwait, its stack of eight open decks towering above the wharves of Portland, arrived to load 28,000 head for the Middle East.
Expecting trouble, port authorities invoked the Marine Act to impose a 200m exclusion zone around the ship and called in police. Their task was eased when strong winds foiled a plan to blockade the ship with Zodiacs, but as loading neared on Thursday the inevitable protest grew ugly.
Protesters first blocked holding yards with their cars and then, as irate farmers and truck drivers shouted abuse, chained themselves to the fence. Police towed away cars, cut through the activists' chains and cleared a passage for the sheep.
But as loading began, Animal Liberation spokesman Mark Pearson warned: "This certainly isn't the end of the campaign against live exports."
Neither protests nor shipboard deaths are new to this trade, which began as the beleaguered Australian sheep industry of the late 1970s faced the constraints of religion and development in the potential gold mine of the Middle East.
Islamic requirements for halal killing - the severing of a sheep's throat with a single cut through to the spinal column - could be met to a limited degree, but lack of refrigerated storage and distribution limited the growth in carcass trade.
The solution was to send animals live, a business that ballooned as the market opened and created not just a new farm industry but fleets of converted or purpose-built ships.
The owner of the Cormo Express, the Vroon group subsidiary Livestock Express, operates eight ships. Six smaller vessels are dedicated to cattle, while the Cormo Express and its 10,450-tonne sister Corriedale Express carry mostly sheep.
From the start live exports were dogged by controversy. Meatworkers fearing for their jobs and supported by other unions launched frequently violent protests, blockades and boycotts; farmers drove their own sheep through pickets and in one dramatic campaign launched co-ordinated convoys through union lines to load sheep themselves.
Animal welfare groups joined in as the failings of early shipments became apparent. Between 1981 and 1985, more than 600,000 sheep died in transit; even with new techniques, ship design, feeding regimes and welfare regulations, more than 2 million head died within the first two decades.
This represents a mortality rate now averaging about 2 per cent - statistically small but emotively explosive.
A series of disasters deepened opposition to the trade. Among the worst were the 1980 deaths of 40,600 sheep when fire swept the ship Farid Fares; 15,000 sheep dead from exposure before loading at Portland in 1983; 10,000 dead on the Cormo Express sailing from New Zealand in 1990; 67,488 sheep drowned or burned when the crew of the burning Uniceb abandoned ship.
Nor is the Cormo Express the first ship to sail the Gulf like a leper: in 1990, following similar repeated rejections by Saudi Arabia that eventually led to a decade-long end to the trade with the kingdom, the Mawashi Al Gasseem searched for 16 weeks for a port willing to accept its sheep.
Authorities have accepted there is no way significant numbers of deaths can be avoided.
Regulations are tough and include detailed risk assessments taking into account the type of stock carried, ships' characteristics, stock densities aboard ships, the time of year and weather conditions throughout the voyage.
Sheep are drafted into pens according to sex, age, weight and size. The pens have ventilation systems designed to give each deck at least one complete change of air every two minutes.
Sheep spend up to three weeks getting from farms to ports and another 10 days in feedlots adjusting to the pellets they will be fed on the ships.
On board, they are packed into pens at a density of three to a square metre in either open or closed decks. Death rates are higher on closed decks, possibly because of higher levels of humidity and ammonia from excrement.
In temperatures reaching 34C despite ventilation, sheep starve because they stop eating, are killed by salmonella bacteria, or die from trauma, frequently caused when the hind legs splay, dislocating hips and tearing pelvic muscle.
A 1994 report on shipboard conditions in the NZ Veterinary Journal gave a further, graphic description of chaos at feeding times.
"The intense competition among animals adversely affected welfare. During plunging and pushing episodes, loss of footing occurred, which resulted in smothering and suffocation of some animals."
The end of the voyage is not the end of distress. About 20 per cent of deaths occur during unloading in the Middle East, often accentuated by delays as ships unload at up to five different ports.
The rejection of the Cormo Express, with a shipment loaded on August 2, has brought all of these elements back into harsh focus. There are suggestions that the Saudis have used inflated scabby mouth figures to either switch to a cheaper supplier or as retribution for Australia's participation in the Iraq war.
The Saudis claim scabby mouth has infected 6 per cent of sheep, above the agreed ceiling of 5 per cent. Australian officials claim the infection rate is only 0.35 per cent.
Whoever is telling the truth, the Cormo Express has put live sheep exports firmly back on the political agenda, with the Government under attack not only from animal welfare groups but also Labor, Democrats and Greens.
The Government continues to hang tough. Said Prime Minister John Howard: "Short of stopping the trade altogether, which I don't think is justified and I don't support, there will always be a certain level of distress and discomfort. It's a question of making it as decent as possible."
But Agriculture Minister Warren Truss, announcing the tougher rules last year, warned the industry: "The livestock trade can continue only if animal welfare issues are dealt with appropriately."
By GREG ANSLEY