Australia's sheep numbers have fallen by about two-thirds in the past half a century.
The national flock has fallen from the dizzying heights of 180 million in the early 1970s, to about 64 million today, its lowest point for a century.
Now the sheep meat industry wants to learn the exact causes of this continued decline so it can try and stop it.
Wool's plummeting price, drought and the rising popularity of other meats, like beef, and even a move to cropping, have been blamed for the worst of it.
The industry wants to document why the decline is continuing despite better prices for wool and particularly for sheep meat.
Industry experts believe Australia will soon overtake New Zealand to become the world's largest exporter of sheep meat product with 36 per cent of global trade in 2020.
This latest research will include interviews with past and present sheep producers to better know where to invest in programs to bolster supplies of sheep meat.
Although producers have seen "reasonable returns" from meat and wool in recent years, the industry continues to see sheep numbers fall.
Sheep Producers Australia has commissioned the "Sheep Supply" project.
The project comprises four components which aim to qualify the global demand for Australian sheep meat and the opportunities for investing in programs to enable increased sheep meat supply.
"We instigated the project due to concerns about our ability to supply a consistent volume of sheep and lamb to the processing sector and maintain Australia's position as a major supplier of sheep meat globally," SPA chief executive officer Stephen Crisp said.
"Understanding the drivers of flock decline is vital when making policy decisions to support the rebuild or restructure of the Australian sheep-meat industry."
Animal Health Australia and Meat & Livestock Australia have been called to help the association collate the information.
The research aims to crunch existing numbers and use "social science methodologies", like one-on-one interviews to form a better picture of where the industry is going.
The project includes:
- A global demand forecast for 2030 (conducted by MLA's Global Insights team)
- An analysis on flock decline to understand causational factors which have caused the flock to increase or decrease in the past.
- An overall data and insight analysis where a skills-based steering group will determine strategic priorities from all data collected.
- Qualitative social science analysis to explore the demographics of current and past sheep producers and provide an insight into the attitudes of producers at different points of their production career.
To deliver the social science research element, AHA and SPA have engaged Dr Roger Wilkinson, Dr Geoff Kuehne and Dr Neil Barr will deliver the social science component.
With more than 80 years of combined experience researching farmer decision-making and farm sector restructuring, this team of researchers has a deep understanding of sheep production systems and the farming community, the association says.
"We are excited to be working with such a strong team of researchers to identify the social factors which are influencing the decline in sheep numbers," AHA's executive manager (biosecurity and animal health systems) Dr Simon Humphrys said.
"The research team will be seeking input from current and past sheep producers across Australia through in-depth qualitative interviews, and we encourage all those who are approached to participate in this vital research."
These interviews are expected to start next month.
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