Compounding the issue facing producers, Australia’s wool price benchmark slumped to its lowest level in eight years last week amid insufficient demand.
The industry estimates wool growers face a 50 per cent decrease in income this year, with retail demand for wool down 60 per cent and critical export markets of Italy and India crippled with coronavirus lockdowns.
Animal welfare issues associated with unshorn sheep include fly-strike, when a moisture build-up in long wool leads to fleece rot. Ewes lambing in spring with long wool may also experience difficult births and lambs may struggle to find the teat to feed properly.
Data released earlier this month shows just 63,000 tonnes of wool came out of the nation’s shearing sheds in the three months to the end of June, the smallest quarterly clip on record. Thirty years ago, the nation produced 280,000 tonnes for the same quarter.
Commercial flights between New Zealand and Australia have ceased because of border closures, with a limited resumption not expected until September at the earliest if more than 50 people are booked.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said the federal government was prepared to co-ordinate special charter flights across the Tasman for shearers to ensure the rural industry was supported over the coming critical months.
“We will ensure that regional industries like wool producers have the support they need,” the Nationals leader said. “Obviously there are issues with travel restrictions through COVID-19 but we are working our way through them and are ready to assist. Regional industries need the right people at the right time, whether that’s picking fruit, harvesting crops or shearing sheep.”
Mr McCormack said the industry was negotiating compulsory 14-day quarantine arrangements with state governments but there would be no exemptions granted to the isolation and testing sanctions.
WoolProducers Australia chief executive Jo Hall said the industry was “really pleased” its concerns about the looming shortage had been sorted.
She said industry had been advocating strongly since April when it appeared travel restrictions would shut out short-term shearing contractors from New Zealand and Britain.
State border closures have also proved difficult, with a team from Hamilton in the western region of Victoria bound for south-west NSW recently told it would be forced to drive to Melbourne to fly to Sydney, quarantine for 14 days and then drive back towards the border.
“Wool growers have repeatedly proven that they are resilient and we have faced adversity many times before but the pandemic has produced new challenges,” Ms Hall said.
The federal government recently negotiated a deal for up to 200 pickers from Vanuatu to harvest mangoes in the Northern Territory, allowing them to be on farms in early September.
Rob Harris is the National Affairs Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra