As time runs out to lay animal welfare charges after more than a 1,000 cattle died of thirst in Western Australia’s north, the Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan flags an overhaul of animal welfare legislation.Key points:No charges have been laid for over 1,000 cattle deaths almost two years ago, described as resulting from “catastrophic failures of management”The statute of limitations for animal welfare cases in Western Australia is 24 monthsThe Minister says she is trying to modernise animal welfare legislationGRAPHIC WARNING: This story contains photos that readers may find distressing.The bulk of the animals had to be destroyed on two Indigenous-owned properties between December 2018 and January 2019, after being discovered in very poor condition due to a lack of feed and water, with others dying after becoming trapped in mud at dried-up dams.The Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) has never confirmed the total number of deaths, but on Yandeyarra Reserve in the Pilbara, 760 cattle were destroyed and hundreds more are believed to have died from thirst.Further north in the Kimberley, authorities confirmed 85 cattle were euthanased and it is understood around 490 cattle died on Noonkanbah Station, near Fitzroy Crossing.The department also confirmed that “a number of cattle deaths” occurred on a Goldfields property, which has never been publicly named.The incidents rocked the northern cattle industry and prompted debate around how to prevent what Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan described as “catastrophic failures in management”.Investigations ongoingBut almost two years later, Ms MacTiernan has cast doubt on whether charges will be brought before the 24-month statute of limitations lapses.”All I can say is that … the process will have to stop by the end of the year because if they haven’t made their decision, then there won’t be any way of taking it forward,” Ms MacTiernan said.”This has to be concluded within two years of the events that led to the allegations. So we’ve really only got a couple of months more before the time statute limitation kicks in.”We have made it clear that they [the department] do need to give priority to bringing this matter to a solution.”The cattle industry has pushed for prosecutions around cattle welfare concerns.(ABC North West: Susan Standen)The matter rests with the State Solicitor’s Office, and Ms MacTiernan said she had done what she could to push for prosecution.The statute of limitations in WA is two years for litigation under animal cruelty legislation, while in other jurisdictions around the country it varies between 12-24 months.A spokesperson from the department said it was confident the matter would be settled prior to the expiration of the statutory limitation period.”Investigation briefs on both matters have been referred to the State Solicitor’s Office for advice and DPIRD is undertaking further enquiries before finalising its position on potential breaches of the WA Animal Welfare Act.”The investigation timeframe is not unusual for complex cases involving alleged offending under the Animal Welfare Act.”Industry wants actionKimberley Pilbara Cattleman’s Association CEO Luke Simpkins said it was surprising how long the investigations into the cattle deaths had taken. Mr Simpkins said animal welfare was a top priority for the northern cattle industry and important to Australian consumers.”Our sector and the public care very deeply about the welfare of the cattle,” he said.”If persons are found to be at fault, then they should be absolutely dealt with. I think the State Solicitor’s Office will bear the brunt of public disapproval if they can’t get this job done. “I think there’s still time to get this done properly and even if COVID has had an impact on the State Solicitor’s Office, I believe, with the will [to do it], this should be able to achieved before the end of the year.”Luke Simpkins is the new CEO of the Kimberley Pilbara Cattleman’s Association.(Supplied: Kimberley Pilbara Cattleman’s Association.)The incidents at Noonkanbah and Yandeyarra, have raised questions about the State Government’s role in supporting pastoral leases run by Aboriginal communities and concerns.The Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development currently provides governance and business capacity-building support to several Aboriginal pastoral businesses in WA, including business planning, corporate governance support and training.Mr Simpkins said it would be good to see more training opportunities for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous station workers to maintain best practice across all levels of industry.”It would be good to have the right training support mechanisms in place to make sure that not just events like Noonkanbah don’t happen again but also to make sure there is a good career progression for young people coming into a very good sector.”Prevention work undertakenThe Mugarinya Community Association, which manages Yandeyarra Reserve, has never publicly spoken out about the incident on its property and has not responded to interview requests.But ABC understands it was not the first-time large-scale cattle deaths have occurred at the Pilbara property.It was alleged 100 cattle perished in 2012 in similar circumstances.Cattle that died in a previous incident in 2012 on the Yandeyarra Reserve cattle station.(Supplied:)After the 2019 mass cattle deaths, DPRID ran a program in a bid to prevent welfare issues on pastoral stations suffering from ongoing dry conditions.Over six months, a team of officers from the Department of Primary Industries and Department of Lands visited more than 170 pastoral properties across the state’s vast rangelands, which cover the Kimberley, Pilbara, Gascoyne, Murchison and Goldfields.The stations were identified as part of a risk assessment launched in partnership with the Pastoral Lands Board, which examined the level of rainfall, management experience and infrastructure on each property.Noonkanbah Station’s owner, Yungngora Association, said, at the time, it was working with authorities to improve livestock management.”[We are] actively cooperating with the Department of Primary Industries and the Pastoral Lands Board to put in place measures to ensure that any re-occurrence is prevented.”Work has been undertaken to protect the welfare of cattle living in arid conditions.(ABC News: Joshua Spong)Musters have been successfully completed by contractors at Noonkanbah and Yandeyarra over the past two seasons without further incident and that both properties had secured professional pastoral management services.The cattle sales from the muster at Yandeyarra have gone towards making a dent in the bill for the State Government’s animal welfare responses, which was estimated to be in the order of $500,000.Costs include money spent on aerial surveillance and humane livestock destruction, as well as basic infrastructure upgrades to improve access for livestock water points.A DPIRD spokesperson said Mugarinya Community Association had met its annual repayment obligations for the financial year 2019-2020, with a $50,000 repayment.They said annual repayments were anticipated until to recover the remaining $435,944 owed for the Yandeyarra incident response, but revealed that Yungngora Association was not bound by a cost recovery funding agreement.’Trying to modernise legislation’The RSPCA WA told the ABC the organisation was unable to comment on the situation while investigations were ongoing.Ms MacTiernan said the problem with bringing a prosecution over the cattle deaths stemmed from Western Australia’s animal welfare legislation.”So it becomes problematic whether or not it crosses that threshold.”Minister Alannah MacTiernan says she is trying to “modernise” animal welfare legislation in Western Australia.(ABC Rural: Courtney Fowler)Ms MacTiernan said some reforms to animal welfare in Western Australia had been introduced, but legislative reform might be needed.”We’re currently undergoing a very profound inquiry into the animal welfare legislation, we’re really looking at whether we need a whole structural reform,” she said.”We are trying to modernise that legislation, not always getting a lot of support in the legislative council to do that, but we will continue to attempt to do this.”
Western Australia’s Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan flags an overhaul of animal welfare legislation as time runs out to lay charges over the deaths of more than 1,000 cattle from thirst.