Under the cover of darkness early one morning in September, a group of people illegally entered a live export cattle holding facility south of Darwin.
With cameras on hand, they climbed a rail and started taking pictures.
The flashes from their camera triggered an ensuing stampede as many of the 6500 cattle in the yards took fright and ran.
The stampede destroyed several internal fences and caused injuries to cattle.
The operation’s owner and manager Nick Thorne has no doubt that animal welfare activists were responsible.
In the weeks prior to the incident his export yards had been the target of direct complaints from animal welfare groups in Darwin. Members of local groups told him they had decided to start a campaign against a lack of shade in AQIS registered live export holding yards.
Mr Thorne said northern live export facilities were fully compliant with welfare standards and guidelines and were heavily audited and regulated.
All cattle handled through his yards were Bos Indicus cattle.
Australia’s Animal Welfare Strategy, developed with input from the RSPCA and the Australian Veterinary Association, states that there are practical reasons why some feedlots and cattle holding facilities do not provide shade for their cattle. “Some specialise in feeding tropically-adapted Bos Indicus cattle which are often sourced from naturally treeless plains which are hotter than the feedlot environment,” the strategy states.
In contrast to feedlot situations in which cattle on held on feed for periods of two to three months or more, cattle are typically only held in Mr Thorne’s Cedar Park yards for four to seven days before export.
Mr Thorne said the many people whose livelihoods relied upon the northern live export trade were only just getting back on their feet after a very difficult two years following the month-long suspension of the cattle trade to Indonesia.
However he understands that the latest incidents are likely to be just the beginning.
“These activists come up here with no industry background or understanding. They create a lot of hysteria and conflict based on incorrect information. They then take off back to their homes leaving industry to repair the damage they have caused,” Mr Thorne said.
Mr Thorne said he hoped the general public would understand that the northern cattle industry took its responsibility for welfare very seriously, and would see that animal rights groups were providing a distorted picture in their attempts to shut down a trade of vital importance to the jobs and lives of thousands of people across northern Australia.
“What I am wanting to get across (by speaking publicly) is that there are a lot of people employed in this industry and there is a lot of investment," he told Beef Central.
“This industry is only just getting back on its feet, and it is very important that everyone support it and understand how many people are involved in it.
“I hope that the general public will respect the knowledge that people involved in the industry have over what the activists have got to say. The activists have got all the time in the world to do this stuff, while we’re all working and it is harder for us to have a come back.”
Mr Thorne said an estimated 70,000 cattle are likely to be handled through northern export yards around Darwin in the next month, representing a much-needed turnaround after two years of uncertainty and stop-start import orders from Indonesia.
“There are positive signs now with the amount of cattle we’re going to be moving in the next month,” he said.
“There is always uncertainty with Indonesia, they will release one thing and then it comes with restrictions. But hopefully next year it will be more consistent.”