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Wool

Last updated 11 June 2020

Contrary to misguided popular belief, the wool industry is far from cruelty-free. With rampant abuse recorded during shearing and painful mutilations without pain relief being perfectly legal, sensitive and loving sheep suffer greatly. Further, wool production is utterly intertwined with meat and live export industries, rendering wool a product of slaughter.

Sheep sentience

A study by Universities Federation for Animal Welfare proved, unsurprising to anyone who has spent time with them, that sheep feel a wide range of emotions, just like we, or our companion dogs and cats do.

It is concluded that sheep are able to experience emotions such as fear, anger, rage, despair, boredom, disgust and happiness because they use the same checks involved in such emotions as humans. For instance, despair is triggered by situations which are evaluated as sudden, unfamiliar, unpredictable, discrepant from expectations, and uncontrollable, whereas boredom results from an overly predictable environment, and all these checks have been found to affect emotional responses in sheep.’

Sheep release high levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone, the same way humans do, in frightening circumstances. Studies have shown the release of cortisol in sheep awaiting their death in abattoirs, during shearing and during painful mutilations like tail docking. 1, 2, 3

 

Newborn lambs just like this one deserve safety, but instead are subjected to painful mutilation.

 

Lack of legal protection

In the wool industry, sheep, as with all farmed animals, are not legally protected from cruelty like dogs or cats are. This is because in the Victorian Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (POCTAA) and equivalent legislation in other states, farmed animals are specifically exempt from such safeties and protections.

As it stands currently, even ‘codes of practice’ for accepted farming methods for sheep are not mandatory to follow. Because of this lack of protection, there is almost no holding the wool industry accountable for the cruelties discussed below, or any other.

Sign our petition to demand legal protection from cruelty for farmed animals

 

Winter lambing

Every year in Australia 10 to 15 million newborn lambs die within the first 48 hours of their lives, largely of starvation, neglect and exposure.

Sheep impregnated to give birth in winter have weaned lambs by spring, when the pastures are most fertile. The wool and meat industry practice winter lambing for this reason, as surviving lambs grow fatter faster, and with reduced supplementary feed costs, as compared to if lambs were weaning into dry summer.

Hypothermia is a common cause of death for lambs who are unable to regulate their temperature, and who are far too often not provided sufficient protection from rain, wind and cold.

An orphaned lamb on a cold winters day.

 

The wool industry states that merino sheep farmers should aim for only 70% of twin newborn lambs surviving. The majority of sheep now birth twins, and sometimes triplets, who have an even worse chance of survival. Deaths across the rest of the sheep and wool industry, for merino cross breed and other sheep, are also deemed acceptable at a certain percentage.  

Many lambs weakened by their conditions are unable to defend themselves from being preyed on by wild animals, and dead lambs attract more predators.

Selective breeding impacts on lambs

Sheep naturally give birth to one lamb, sometimes two, as with humans. However, years of selective breeding and genetic manipulation has forced sheep to live unnaturally. It is now extremely common for ewes to birth twins, and even triplets are fairly regular occurrences.

 

Death rates of lambs increase significantly as more are birthed. Lambs born as twins or triplets are smaller and weaker, so are more likely to die of hypothermia and other complications. Ewes only have two teats to offer their young milk from, so the weakest stand little chance to live in the case of triplets and even quadruplets.

Journal of Animal Science graph showing that twins and triplets are lighter, and more likely to die.

 

 

Selective breeding impacts on ewes

Not only has selective breeding led to millions of newborn lambs dying annually, it harms mother ewes. Mother sheep bearing twins and triplets are more likely to die than sheep who are able to birth a natural single lamb.

These ewes are also more likely to become downed, susceptible to becoming fox or crow prey, and to prolapse. This means a ewe’s vagina is pushed out of her vulva during lambing, and even her pelvic organs may literally fall out of her. Prolapse regularly leads to death especially in severe cases.

 

A dead ewe who has prolapsed

 

Shearing

The most widely discussed aspect of the wool industry, shearing, has been exposed as consistently violent and abusive.

PETA investigations across the world, including many in Australia, have shown farmers punching sheep in the face, pinning them down by a knee on their necks, throwing them like ragdolls, stomping on them, hitting them with metal clippers, carelessly cutting them and stitching bloody, gaping wounds without training or pain relief.

Industry shearing is so often violent not only because sheep are commodified and devalued as individuals by the industry, but because shearers are generally paid per animal shorn, or by weight of wool. Being paid this way, rather than per hour, incentivises speed which inevitably results in rougher handling, more careless work, and injury.

A still from a PETA undercover investigation in an Australian shearing shed.

 

Sheep do need to be shorn, but only because again, humans have selectively bred them for so long that their genes have been modified. Domesticated sheep originate from mouflon, an animal which still exists in the wild today.

Mouflon have a coat of fur which sheds in the summer months, leaving only their thinner woolly layer. In contrast, sheep have only a thick wool layer, which they are unable to shed to moderate their temperature between seasons.

Merino sheep particularly, who make up 70% of the Australian flock, are burdened with enormous amounts of wool due to this genetic selection. These sheep also have more rolls of skin, holding more wool. More wool is more profit, but these additional folds of skin, found in all crevasses such as at the meeting point of the neck and back, hold moisture and can lead to fly strike, which can be lethal, and extremely painful.

If sheep were no longer bred for the purpose of their exploitation and slaughter, only animals who are able to naturally thrive would continue to live, and live in freedom.

 

 

Painful standard practices: Mulesing

Sheep are forced to undergo many painful procedures in the wool and meat industries. Mulesing, the most widely criticised of these procedures, is the practice of slicing off the skin around the rear of a sheep.

 

A still from a PETA investigation in South Australia, exposing mulesing.

This practice is particularly prevalent in merino sheep flocks, because of their greater mass of thick wool coated skin. It is performed under the guise of protection from fly strike, a myiasis condition where parasitic flies lay eggs in skin, soiled wool or open wounds. In fly strike, after hatching, born maggots bury themselves into a sheep’s wool and skin, feeding on their flesh.

While this condition is horrific, regular crutching, the tight shearing of wool on the tail, on the rear and between the rear legs of sheep for hygiene purposes, prevents fly strike just as effectively. Crutching is more effort, time and cost demanding, so is not preferable to a profit driven industry.

 

Recently mulesed and tail docked sheep showing abnormal posturing, a clear behavioural indicator of pain.

 

The pain a sheep would experience while having their skin sliced from their body without any medical relief is unimaginable. Mulesing is currently legal without any form of pain relief or anaesthesia across Australia, although parliamentary discussion to demand pain relief in Victoria persists.

In response to the potential change, the chairman of the NSW Farmers Wool Committee stated, ‘the concern is, where will this demand for pain relief stop?’, his greatest concern being ‘people telling us what we should be doing on our properties’. More concerned with a farmer’s freedom to do whatever they please than with the wellbeing of animals, a large part of the industry fears that mandatory pain relief for mulesing will make way for mandatory pain relief for all mutilations – something which would reduce sheep suffering.

Claims have been made by the industry for years that mulesing would be phased out, but this has not been the case. From the Victorian Government: ‘The wool industry has proposed that surgical mulesing be phased out by 31 December 2010’. A decade later, nothing has changed for lambs and sheep.

 

Tail docking

Because tail docking is standard practice in the wool industry, it is easy for the public to forget sheep are born with long tails. Naturally, sheep use their tail like many other animals, swatting flies to protect themselves. However, because these tails now hold so much wool, they can become a breeding ground for maggots, easily soaked with urine and faeces if sheep are not carefully crutched.

 

 

A lamb wiggling their tail in glee at Edgar’s Mission

Tail docking is ‘preferably’ (though no legal requirement enforces this) performed on lambs as young as two to twelve weeks old, with no mandatory pain relief. The codes of practice state that sheep over six months old ‘must’ be provided with anaesthetic, but because of the farmed animal protection exemption in Australian law, this is not legally binding. 

There are three common methods of tail removal deployed legally in Australia, again, with no requirement for pain relief:

Heated scarring iron

Less common than the two below methods but considered by the industry to be especially ‘good practice’, a heated scarring iron sears tails off. The industry considers this a beneficial method as the heat results in reduced blood loss. The intense, flesh destroying temperature is extremely painful.

Left: ‘Marking’ knives, a heated scarring iron and banding device. Right: A heated scarring iron being used to sever a lamb’s tail.

 

Knife

The most common method, misleadingly defined by the industry as ‘surgical’, is far less sterile as the word implies. Young lambs simply have their tail skin and bone cut through, severing it with a sharp knife, sometimes one which is flame heated. 

 

wool 15 During mutilations like tail docking, lambs are held in ‘cradles’ which restrain them. This lamb is about to have her tail cut off.

 

Banding

This method involves forcing tight rubber bands onto the tail so that circulation to it is cut. The nerves in the tail slowly die, and the tail drops off. This is proven to be very painful, not only when the band is put on, but for the entire process. Imagine an extremely tight band cutting the circulation to your finger until it falls off.

 

A band being forced onto the tail of a lamb.

 

Castration

So as to control the genetics of their flock, wanting only the most profitable, woolly sheep to breed, farmers castrate many male lambs.

Codes of practice again state that lambs may be mutilated without pain relief, with a knife, other cutting instrument, or with the use of rubber rings.

 

 

The wool and meat industry

The wool industry is inextricably linked to the meat industry. Meat and Livestock Australia, The Woolmark Company and Australian Wool Innovation all state that the sheep breeds used by the wool industry are considered ‘dual-purpose’ as they are exploited not only for wool, but eventually slaughtered for their flesh as meat. This is even the case for the large merino population, widely considered just ‘wool sheep’.

 

An industry fact sheet on wool.

 

Some wool comes from lambs who are shorn prior to their slaughter for lambs meat at 6-9 months old. Whether a sheep is shorn before slaughter or not is dependent on what is more profitable: to sell wool and meat, or to sell a wool-on skin and meat.

skins

Other sheep, who have been deemed as producing a high-quality wool, are kept alive for several years to be regularly shorn. These sheep are slaughtered halfway into their natural lifespan, at 5-6 years old. At this point they are considered ‘cast for age’ because their wool quality decreases, as human hair does, so they are no longer profitable alive. Their flesh is sold as mutton meat.

The wool industry is a slaughter industry, one and the same as the meat industry.

 

Live export

The wool industry gains hundreds of millions of dollars from selling sheep no longer most profitable for wool production, into live export.

In 2018, the live export industry sent 973,651 sheep to be slaughtered overseas. 5,982 of these sheep died on the ship there, according to Government reporting.

Investigations have shown live export ships are overcrowded, grossly inadequate in their ability to provide even basic needs like clean water and personal space. Sheep on the long voyages have been documented by those on ship drowning in weeks' worth of urine and faeces, and even being cooked alive inside the hot ship.

On a live export ship, via Animals Australia

 

Slaughter

Wool industry sheep sold to Australian abattoirs are a part of the 30 million total lambs and sheep annually slaughtered.

Standard legal practice for slaughter means sheep must be stunned, electrically or with a captive-bolt gun which is shot into their brains. Following stunning, sheep are slaughtered by having their throats cut open, until they bleed out.

Stunning is regularly ineffective, and in the case of electrical stunning, never renders an animal permanently unconscious. Animals regain their consciousness from electrical stunning within a few minutes, so if they are not bled out in this time, they will be conscious during their slaughter. 1, 2, 3

Footage released by Aussie Farms in the documentary Dominion, shows multiple incidences of sheep who are ineffectively stunned, and who are conscious during slaughter.

 

 

Moving away from wool

Fortunately, there is an alternative to this heinous industry. There is no need for us to wear the wool or skins of sheep or consume their flesh. There are wonderful, cruelty-free and sustainable alternatives to wool and shearling skins.

Learn more about them: About Wool and the Alternatives



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