Sheep Industry - Australia's Pride and Cruelty?
Did you know that the use of sheep as a meat product is actually a byproduct of the wool industry?
The number of sheep in Australia ranges from approximately 107 million to 114 million sheep and provides just over 80%, or one quarter of the world’s total wool!
It is a common misconception that the shearing of sheep helps them from becoming 'over burdened' with wool, when in reality, sheep produce just enough wool to protect them from the temperature extremes. Merinos have been genetically modified and specially bred to produce so much wool. The amount and quality of wool would not occur naturally.
Up until 1000BC, it was common practice to 'pluck' the wool from the sheep during their moulting seasons. Just after this period, shears were created and therefore, the beginning of breeding for continuous growth.
What’s cruel about wool? (An Animal Rights Perspective)
Australia prides itself on the wool that comes from Merinos. The Merino sheep is the most commonly raised sheep and has been specifically bred to have wrinkly skin. This promotes increased wool growth meaning more wool. Since this is an unnatural overload of wool it can cause the sheep to die of heat exhaustion during our hot months. Due to extreme temperatures that can reach near 40 degrees Celsius, many sheep die from heat stroke or dehydration. Also, due to the wrinkly skin which contains more skin folds, the wool also collects unnatural amounts of urine and moisture.
It is this moisture build up that attracts the flies which lay their eggs. Newly hatched maggots then live off the filth and flesh on their rump, thus causing fly strike. To combat this problem a procedure known as mulesing is carried out in which large carvings of skin are taken from the back legs, near the rump of lambs without anaesthetic or any pain killers. The end result is a smooth scarring of skin which won’t be prone to fly strike. However, in most cases, the untreated bloody wounds often DO get fly blown before it has time to heal. Despite the claim that it is necessary, it is known that it can possibly kill more lambs if left alone. Lambs that are abandoned by their mothers and/or unable to stand up and walk around after being mulsed are sometimes killed. Furthermore, studies have shown that mulesing can lead to an increase in lambs developing arthritis as a result of infection. Many lambs suffering from arthritis are considered unworthy for meat processing and are culled.
Young lambs, just weeks after their birth, have their ears punched, their tails docked, and the males are castrated without pain killers.
Ageing sheep are then subjected to a process called tooth grinding, which is another procedure without anaesthetic. A common method involves using the edge of a disc cutter to cut right through the teeth near the level of the gums. It is painful as it exposes the sensitive pulp cavities and causes profuse bleeding. The condition of a sheep’s teeth is critical, and can have a big effect on their behaviour. It is claimed that by reducing tooth loss, farmers can extend the sheep’s PRODUCTIVE life.
What other welfare issues are there?
There is an extremely high rate of mortality that is considered as “normal”: 20-40% of lambs die at birth or before they reach eight weeks of age. Starvation and the cold are main factors in the death rate. Furthermore, 8 million mature sheep die each year from disease, lack of shelter during extreme weather conditions, and neglect. Around one million of these die within 30 days of shearing.
Experimentation is also carried out on sheep. A common procedure is to take malnourished ewes into laboratories and place them in climate-controlled chambers to determine how much exposure they can tolerate before they die.
To help with the high mortality rate the most logical decision would be to reduce the number of sheep so as to keep the remaining ones at least decently. However, due to the significant worth of this multi-million dollar industry and the demand for wool products, more sheep are forced to give birth to lambs with the administration of drugs. Since this industry relies on land conditions and weather that can be erratic at times, when a major drought occurs and the conditions are too hard for farmers to gain a profit at sales and/or wool prices, millions of sheep have been known to be shot and buried when they become practically “worthless”.
What about this ‘ultra-fine’ wool?
Many Australians are unaware of the increasing ’ultra-fine’ wool industry because it is so far from our well known sheep farming practices. Even the Australian Wool Innovation website fails to acknowledge the methods involved. This ‘ultra-fine’ wool industry began as a supply to an elite international market and wealthy buyers from well known fashion houses. However, due to the availability and increase in market, ’ultra-fine’ wool is now being used with common wool.
The ‘ultra-fine’ wool industry is an intensive one. Specially bred sheep are kept indoors in individual small pens 24 hours a day and up to 4 or 5 years. Nylon coats are worn by the ‘shedded’ sheep to ensure that dust and dirt does not enter their fleece. They never have the opportunity to feel natural sunlight and have to deal with unnatural lighting. The sheep are never allowed to roam outside, nor exhibit any natural behaviours such as grazing, roaming and socialisation.
But won’t they be safer and have more food?
Imagine spending all your life confined in a crate not being able to move around, socialise properly with others or perform any natural behaviours. Still think you’d be better off?
This is an unnatural existence and the inappropriate environment causes many behavioral problems. Just like sows kept in small stalls, ‘ultra-fine’ sheep have been seen to continually chew on the wooden slats and strands of wire which enclose them. Repetitive body movements are caused by a barren environment and lack of stimulation, combined with the inability to exercise and the inability to perform simple natural behaviours.
What happens to the sheep no longer needed by the wool industry?
Once the sheep have past their full wool producing capability, they are then loaded onto trucks and trains to the slaughterhouse without any food or water. Since they are naturally timid and highly strung, being confined in such dense numbers result in frightened sheep being trampled by others. There is a lack of basic veterinarian care and poor conditions result in many sheep suffering from ‘foot rot’ which is very painful. Many sheep have been known to try to drag themselves on their knees. The sheep that are dying or have died on the way, are discarded. Around 18% of sheep die during the 3-6 week transport process; and up to 15,000 sheep die in the feedlot alone.
Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: the sheep
What about this ‘live export trade’?
Sheep that manage to survive and aren’t slaughtered in Australia are shipped off overseas. Over 7 million sheep are exported per year to the Middle-East. This trade is supported by the wool industry as "an important component of the wool and sheep industry."
Up to 150,000 sheep are packed tightly together and allowed an area just large enough for themselves. This area is so small that they cannot turn around or lie down together, or even reach their feed troughs. The sheep are forced to stand and lay in their own waste for up to a month. The unhygienic conditions combined with fear and stress, make the sheep susceptible to diseases, sea-sickness, extreme temperatures, and injuries. The younger ones, or those that are too sick to defend themselves, are often trampled to death or suffocated.
Code of Practice: For the Transportation of Sheep in W.A
Many sheep are sick or injured from the land journey to the port, and combined with intensive overcrowding, stress, disease and strange food, a significant number die on their way overseas. Death on the ship is around 10% or 1500 sheep , and for every one that dies, many more become sick or injured. Sheep that are seen as not making it to foreign land are often thrown overboard with the dead ones, with many drowning or being eaten alive by sharks.
Once at their overseas destination, the surviving sheep are ritually slaughtered known as Halal. Muslim law does not require a sharpened knife between kills. The sheep are not stunned prior to slaughter and most have their throats sawed open by dull knives.
According to one witness in the Sitra abattoir in Bahrain, men would begin slaughtering as soon as a pen was full. The sheep would "wave their heads in obvious confusion, trying to stand up and call out as the blood gushed from their throats." ( www.prijateli-zivotinja.hr )
For more information, see our section on the Live Export Trade.
Mulesing is the surgical removal of strips of skin from the wool-bearing areas around the tail of the sheep. It is a common practice used in Australia when preventing fly strike. It will be expected to be phased out by 2010.
The practice involves restraining the lamb in a marking cradle before the wrinkled skin in the lamb's breech (rump area) is cut away from the perianal region down to the top of the hind limbs. Originally, modified wool-trimming metal shears were used, however there are similar metal sheers designed specifically for mulesing. Additionally, a portion of the tail is removed and the remaining stump is skinned. The cuts are executed to avoid affecting underlying muscle tissue. The total time of the operation is no longer than one or two minutes.
Antiseptics are often applied, but anaesthesia and painkillers are not required or used during or after the procedure. Products such as Tri-Solfen have been approved for pain relief during the procedure, but is not required by Australian industry practices.
As stipulated by the NSW Department of Primary Industries in the Standard Operating Procedures, mulesing may be carried out up to 12 months of age. Current codes of practice ban mulesing for sheep over 12 months of age. It is preferable to mules at lamb marking in order to provide protection against breech and tail strike as early as possible. If not carried out at that time, it may be delayed to weaning or later. It will then be necessary to crutch before operating.
Mulesing should be avoided if sheep are in very poor conditions, such as times of drought. Also avoid periods when bush flies (Musca spp.) are prevalent as they delay healing and render the wounds attractive for sheep blowfly (L. cuprina).
When addressing the wellbeing of the sheep, the NSW Dept of Primary Industries does acknowledge that the procedure causes pain. It also states that no pre- or post-operative pain relief measures should be used and that the operation can be traumatic. ( www.dpi.nsw.gov.au )
For definite information about the technique used in mulesing, as well as the welfare of sheep, please refer to the Codes of Practice for Animal Welfare- the sheep.
Is mulesing cruel and necessary?
Unanaesthetised mulesing has been considered to be inhumane and unnecessary. An additional argument is that mulesing may mask genetic susceptibility to fly strike allowing for genetic weaknesses to continue.
A study has found that mulesing increases the odds of arthritis in lambs by seven times, because the wounds give an entry point for an organism responsible for arthritis (Erysipelothrix rhusiopathiae). The study concluded that to decrease the risk of high prevalence of arthritis, lambs raised for meat production should not be mulesed or shorn. This is important considering that a part or all of a lamb carcass that has suffered from arthritis are discarded in abattoirs. Furthermore, lambs that are arthritic are often culled on farms.
Non-surgical alternatives that are currently being researched include:
- Selective breeding
- Safe insecticides
- Biological control of blowflies
- Plastic clips on the sheep's skin folds (known as breech clips)
- Topical protein-based treatments, in the form of intradermal injections
- Standard Operating Procedure - Sheep (Mulesing) www.dpi.nsw.gov.au
- Effects of mulesing and shearing on the prevalence of Erysipelothrix rhusiopathiae arthritis in lambs.MW Paton, IR Rose, FM Sunderman and M Holm Martin Australian Veterinarian Journal, Vol 81, No 11, November 2003
What Can You Do?
- Simply put: Don't eat mutton (sheep) and lamb by becoming vegetarian or vegan.
- Don't wear or use any wool products. There are plenty of alternatives out there that look and feel like wool.
Check out the ACT page for more ideas on how you can help put an end to the cruelty involved, both here in Australia and overseas.
Need more information?