18 Jun 2015

'High losses' of lambs at Saudi farm

6:44 am on 18 June 2015

High numbers of New Zealand bred lambs on a controversial demonstration farm in the Saudi Arabian desert have died soon after birth.

sheep shipment

Photo: AFP

New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, which is running the operation, said it was not responsible for animal welfare at the farm, which is intended to showcase New Zealand agriculture.

The Government flew 900 pregnant sheep to the Saudi farm late last year as part of an $11 million deal with the farm's owner, Hamood al-Ali al-Khalaf, whose anger over the cancellation of live sheep exports was preventing a free trade deal with the Gulf states.

By December, the lambs were being born and promptly began to die. New Zealand Trade and Enterprise could not confirm exactly how many had died but described it as "high losses".

It said New Zealand animal experts went to the farm to try to stop the deaths.

New Zealand Trade and Enterprise said the welfare and treatment of the lambs at the demonstration farm were matters for the Saudi farmer Mr Al-Khalaf.

Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy said he was not aware of mass lamb deaths. "I'm unaware of the size or the scale of those mortalities," he said.

Green Party co-leader James Shaw said the Government was desperate to appease the Saudi businessman and the lambs had paid the price.

"As I understand it something like 75 percent of the baby sheep that have been born since they arrived in Saudi have died.

This thing is supposed to be some kind of showcase agri-hub for New Zealand agricultural businesses and industries, and having that kind of die off rate just puts a lie to the whole idea that that's what it's there for."

The Government's been under fire for weeks for its deal with Mr Al-Khalaf.

It spent $1.5 million to fly the sheep to Saudi Arabia, gave Mr Al-Khalaf $4 million directly and spent a further $6 million kitting out his farm.

But earlier this month, Prime Minister John Key said Cabinet papers from 2007 would show Labour had misled Mr Al-Khalaf and had been looking to do a similar deal of its own.

The papers were finally made public yesterday, and were partially censored, but contained no evidence that the Labour Party had been looking to financially compensate Mr Al-Khalaf or was facing legal action from him.

The papers do show Labour banned shipments of live sheep because it was worried about animal welfare and New Zealand's trading reputation, and that there were legal and commercial risks associated with halting the trade.

Labour said those risks related to possible World Trade Organisation action, and were nothing to do with Mr Al-Khalaf.

Read the Cabinet papers released by Labour MP David Parker

Mr Key hinted the juciest details were censored by officials.

"I can't be sure what's redacted and what's not, but the assurances made by (the then Labour trade minister) Phil Goff to the Saudis was that there would be a commercial way through this.

"And then having changed their mind well and truly after that, they then didn't even tell the Saudis they were doing that," Mr Key said.

Mr Key said he was not able to override officials who censored the papers in order to prove his accusations.

Labour's trade spokesperson David Parker said the Government hyped up the Cabinet papers to divert attention.

"This whole thing has always been a smokescreen by the Government to pretend that a $4 million up-front payment to a Saudi businessman that is absolutely unprecedented in the history of New Zealand is somehow authorised, is somehow legitimate. It never was," said Mr Parker.

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