The transport of animals by sea (‘live export’) is one of the most important current animal welfare issues in Australian society. Recent media attention has highlighted concerns regarding the effects of high environmental temperature and humidity on the welfare and mortality of sheep being shipped live from Australia to the Middle East, especially during the Northern Hemisphere summer. To improve understanding of how and why harmful heat load occurs, we systematically reviewed Australian research into heat load and sea transport. High thermal load occurs during the sea transport of sheep and cattle from Australia when animals are subject to hot and humid environmental conditions and cannot remove heat generated by metabolic processes in the body, potentially also gaining heat from the environment. Several approaches have been proposed to mitigate these risks, including avoidance of voyages in hot seasons, selection of heat-resistant livestock breeds, reducing stocking density, and improved ventilation. We identified a lack of scientific literature relating to heat load in animals transported by sea and considerable potential for bias in the literature that was found. We identified the following priority research areas: (i) experimental manipulation of variables thought to influence the incidence and severity of harmful heat load, including sheep density; (ii) further assessment of the Heat Stress Risk Assessment (HSRA) model used to predict heat load events, and (iii) development of a suite of animal welfare indicators that may allow identification of ‘at risk’ sheep before they reach debilitating heat load condition. Addressing these knowledge gaps will assist efforts to reduce the frequency and intensity of harmful heat load events.
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