Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has commissioned an urgent investigation into live sheep exports after witnessing "deeply disturbing" footage of dead sheep on voyages to the Middle East.
In a single voyage last August, 2400 sheep died in extreme heat aboard a ship from Perth to Doha, Qatar, the Australian Live Exporters' Council confirmed on Thursday.
Mr Littleproud said he was shown the video by advocacy group Animals Australia, but had also received an incident report from his department last week about the heat-related deaths.
The minister said he was "shocked and deeply disturbed by the vision", which is understood to show dead sheep decomposing on board the ship, and carcasses lying in their own excrement.
Mr Littleproud said the Agriculture Department would urgently investigate information it was due to receive on Thursday afternoon, and he had already inquired as to what precautions the industry had taken against heat-related mortality.
"It's just total bullshit that what I saw is taking place," Mr Littleproud said on Thursday.
"This cannot go on. If you are doing the wrong thing, you're going to get nailed. The pride and joy of our Australian farmers, being treated in this way, disturbed me greatly.
"I will not be afraid to call out and take strong action against those who have not fulfilled their responsibilities, whether they be the exporter, the regulator or staff on ships."
Mr Littleproud said the footage he had seen was gathered on multiple shipments of sheep from Perth to the Middle East in 2016 and 2017.
The Exporters' Council said the August 2017 consignment had to make its first stop in the humid port of Doha due to the Gulf blockage of Qatar. Normally it would make its first, fully-laden stop in Kuwait, which has a drier heat.
The death of 2400 sheep out of 63,804 on board equates to a death rate of 3.79 per cent - almost twice the "reportable" mortality rate of 2 per cent as prescribed by the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock.
Last year, 12,377 sheep exported from Australia died in transit, from a total of1.74 million – a mortality rate of 0.71 per cent.
Footage of the dead sheep is due to air on Channel Nine's 60 Minutes on Sunday. The program has promised it will "shock the nation".
The announcement that the footage will soon be aired prompted Exports' Council chief executive Simon Westaway to concede: “These deaths and the conditions in which they occurred are plainly unacceptable."
He welcomed the renewed focus on animal welfare and said the industry's performance was "always under scrutiny".
Mr Westaway said exporters had returned to using Kuwait as the first port of call for shipments to the Gulf, and ships were taking on lighter consignments during the northern hemisphere summer to mitigate against the extreme heat.
But he said the industry was prepared for further reform and "ongoing improvement in terms of animal welfare".
According to the incident report prepared by the Department of Agriculture, exporter Emanuel Exports Pty Ltd was required to review and comply with a heat management plan. The company's next shipment on the same vessel had a mortality rate of just 0.52 per cent, the report said.
Mr Littleproud, who replaced Barnaby Joyce in the agriculture portfolio at the end of last year, has signalled a tough stance on animal welfare in what is a politically sensitive issue for both sides of politics.
Labor sustained heavy criticism for its blanket suspension of live cattle exports to Indonesia in 2011, after shocking footage of animal cruelty emerged on board vessels.
Animals Australia did not return calls on Thursday afternoon.