Last updated 24 October 2022

Despite their reputation as being simple “followers”, sheep are intelligent animals with incredible memories. In nature, sheep travel long distances in complex, close-knit families. Each herd will cooperate and stay together for survival and protection, similar to many other animal species who travel together in packs.

Just like dogs, a sheep can learn their own name. Far beyond this, they also have highly developed facial recognition skills. A team of British scientists has shown that sheep are able to recognize the faces of at least 50 individuals and continue to remember them after years of separation.

"If sheep have such sophisticated facial recognition skills, they must have much greater social requirements than we thought," said Keith Kendrick, of the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, England.

Sheep also form close friendships with one another. Researchers believe that just like humans, sheep will often think of each other when they’re not around, and show signs of distress or depression when their preferred companions are missing.

As we continue to discover more and more about these intelligent and emotional animals, it appears the common belief about sheep being “mindless and simple” has been shaped by our own lack of understanding.


Each year, around 29 million sheep are killed for their flesh in Australia: approximately 7-8 million adults and 21 million lambs (averaged from 2017-22). “Lamb” is the term used for a sheep that is less than one year old. Flesh from sheep older than one year is called “mutton”.


In Australia, the most common breed of sheep farmed for their wool are ‘merinos’. Merinos are specifically bred to have wrinkled skin resulting in more wool per animal. Much like our hair thins as we get older, after a few years, a sheep’s wool production will also begin to decline. When this happens, it is no longer deemed profitable for the industry to “care” for them, and so older sheep originally farmed for their wool are sent to slaughter and sold as cheap meat.

Did you know?  The Australian Ugg Boot is usually not made from the wool of a sheep that has “just” been sheared. Ugg boots and other products such as car seat covers are typically made from sheep and lambs that have been slaughtered and skinned. Their skin is then tanned with their wool still on it.


Current issues regarding sheep raised for their flesh and wool are listed below.

The Issues

Tail docking is performed by cutting through the tail bone of a lamb with a hot knife while fully conscious, or by placing a rubber band around their tail to cut off circulation so it withers and falls off. Both of these methods are extremely painful and performed without pain relief. Frequently tails are docked too short, and lambs can suffer from rectal prolapse in which the tail muscles weaken and force the rectum to painfully protrude from the anus.

Tails are cut shorter to reduce the chance of “flystrike”, a condition where blowfly eggs laid on the skin hatch and begin to consume tissue. An alternative might be to clip the fur short around the sheep’s rear (industry term: crutching) in addition to cleaning it with a wet rag a few times a year, but this isn’t considered worth the labor cost to the industry.

Mulesing is performed by slicing two patches of skin, 5 - 7cm each in width each side of the anus right down to the back of the knee of a lamb so that a scar of stretched skin grows back. Skin is also sliced from the sides and the end of the tail stump which has already been docked.

The process is done without any pain relief and leaves a gaping wound that takes months to heal. Mulesing is also done to prevent flystrike, yet, the gaping wounds that mulesing cause will often leave lambs at high risk of flystrike and infection. Lambs will thrash in pain and try to escape during mulesing, so they are often locked into metal restraints.

Disbudding involves burning the budding horns of young lambs to prevent growth. One method involves using a hot iron to apply searing heat to the growth rings, frequently injuring underlying flesh and bone in the process. A second method involves applying a paste of acidic chemicals to burn the growth rings. Not only does this acidic paste also injure underlying flesh and bone, but it will often cause injury to the lambs’ eyes and skin, particularly when it’s raining, but this is considered mere “collateral damage” by farmers.

Dehorning involves removing horns from a sheep’s skull using anything from knives, wires, saws or shears without anesthetic or pain relief. This mutilation is intended to make sheep easier to handle and to prevent injuries, yet little concern seems to be afforded to the severe pain and distress it causes. Additionally, horns are necessary for the cooling and thermoregulation of an animal’s body because they regulate the temperature of blood supply to the brain. When horns are sliced or burned off, this natural process is hindered.

Castration is performed on lambs by cutting their scrotums open, pulling their testes out and cutting them off, or by attaching a rubber ring tightly around their scrotum to constrict blood flow, eventually causing their testicles to fall off. Both methods are performed without anesthetic or pain relief.

Lack of care is the norm when flocks consist of thousands of sheep, making it impossible to give attention to an individual sheep’s needs.

Extreme confinement is inflicted upon “ultra-fine wool” sheep who are confined to individual stalls and denied access to the outside world. The confinement can drive the animals insane, shown by signs of abnormal repetitive behaviours such as bar biting, which will often cause their mouths to bleed.

Electroejaculation involves inserting a rectal probe into the anus of rams kept for breeding and electrocuting them to force the release of semen. Their semen is then collected to artificially inseminate (impregnate) sheep. Because this method is fast, it is often favoured over the alternative method of semen collection using an artificial sheep vagina. Natural methods of breeding on an industrial scale is not considered viable because there is less ability for genetic control and pregnancy/birth synchronization.

Artificial Insemination involves pushing a metal tube into the vagina of sheep and using a syringe to inject semen (industry term: cervical insemination). A second method involves surgery where the stomach is cut to access the sheep’s pelvic organs and the semen is inserted directly into the uterus (industry term: laparoscopic insemination).

Rough handling is the norm when shearing is performed because shearers are paid by number of sheep shorn, not by the hour. Thus, speed is prioritised over precision. As a result of fast shearing, sheep can suffer cuts, grazes and gashes from the shearing equipment. Merino sheep, the most common breed farmed for their wool in Australia, are often cut more easily since they have wrinkly skin.

Weather Extremities are experienced by sheep left without shelter during Australia’s hot and cold weather. One in four lambs, approximately 15 million each year, will die from exposure in Australia. In addition to this, many sheep also die from heat exhaustion because they’re selectively bred to produce unnaturally high quantities of wool and are left without shelter. Without human interference, sheep grow just enough wool to protect themselves from temperature extremes.

Long transportation periods are often the norm for sheep being transported to slaughter. They can have their water supply cut off for 48 hours if they are over 4 months old, or 28 hours if they are under 4 months old. This can be repeated once they’ve been given a small amount of water if it’s a long journey. A study published by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation found that up to 50 per cent of lambs suffer from dehydration by the time they arrive at the slaughterhouse.

The Law

While sheep can be as loving and social as your cat or dog, these gentle animals are not protected under the same animal welfare laws. Acts that would be considered cruel and illegal if done to cats or dogs are allowed to be done to sheep and other animals who are considered “livestock”, under Australia’s Model Codes of Practice. The Codes effectively act as a defence or exemption to animal cruelty legislation, rendering the law useless.

This lack of protection results in gruesome acts of abuse towards sheep throughout Australia such as what was witnessed in three states from 2012-2014, when hidden cameras captured sheep being beaten, cut and sewed back together without anesthetic, and gouged in the eyes during a wool shearing session.

What You Can Do

It is clear that Australia’s legal exemptions for farmed animals inhibit sheep from being protected from horrific acts of cruelty. The best way we can help them is by withdrawing our financial support from the industry by leaving lamb and mutton off our plates, and by choosing alternatives to wool such as cotton, cotton flannel, polyester fleece, synthetic shearling, and other cruelty-free fibres.

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