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UPDATE 2-New Zealand to end livestock exports due to animal welfare concerns

(Recasts and updates throughout with more detail, reaction)

By Praveen Menon

WELLINGTON, April 14 (Reuters) - New Zealand said on Wednesday it will stop the export of livestock by sea following a transition period of up to two years, citing animal welfare concerns for a decision that will affect major trading partners including Australia and China.

The ban was welcomed by animal welfare groups, but the peak farming industry body said it was caught by surprise and was unaware of any breaches of standards.

Live exports by sea represent about 0.2% of New Zealand's primary sector exports revenue since 2015 has averaged around NZ$60 million ($42.32 million) per year from 2015 to 2019. New Zealand exported 113,285 cattle by sea last year.

"We have not been able to guarantee the safety of these animals at sea and that's an unacceptable risk for New Zealand,"

Agriculture minister Damien O'Connor told reporters, adding that key trading partners were informed of the decision.

"I recognise the importance of our trade relationships with our international partners and we're committed to working with them as we transition away from the shipment of livestock," he said.

Asked if there were concerns the move would upset China, a top importer of live cattle, O'Connor said: "This is not about China. It's about animal welfare and our reputation."

Simone Clarke, executive director of World Animal Protection New Zealand, said the decision was a "significant moment in our history for animals, one which other governments around the world must now follow."

However, Wayne Langford, a spokesman for Federated Farmers of New Zealand, said the industry body "has no information about any breaches of the high standards relating to livestock exports."

New Zealand said last year it was reviewing live exports when it introduced interim measures following the capsizing of a ship bound for China that killed nearly 6,000 cows and 41 of the 43 crew members.

O'Connor said despite improvements to processes, the long sea voyages to northern hemisphere markets continued to pose animal welfare challenges.

($1 = 1.4176 New Zealand dollars) (Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Chris Reese, Richard Chang and Jane Wardell)

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