Wool

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Wool

Wild sheep do not need to be sheared.  They naturally grow a warm, wooly coat during the winter, and in summer, their coats thin out.  Domestic sheep, however, have been bred to have an excess of wool–their thick, heavy coats are not natural.  It is also interesting to note that the majority of the wool produced in Canada is not sold in Canada.  About 70% of Canadian wool is exported to China; the remainder goes to the United States, India, western Europe, and finally, to domestic mills. 1

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Shearing and Routine Mutilations

The wool industry is more violent than most people realize–routine mutilations are legally performed without anesthetic, even though experts recommend that painkillers be used. 2 3 In Canada and most other wool-producing countries, lambs have their tails “docked”, or cut off, when they are 24 to 48 hours old.4 This is commonly done by either burning the tail off with a hot iron or attaching a tight rubber ring at the base of the tail; in 7 to 10 days, the lack of circulation to the tail causes it to shrivel up and fall off.   This process is acknowledged to be “painful to the lamb.” 5 Other devices crush the tail before cutting it off.6 Lastly, some farms simply chop the tail off with a knife.7 Sometimes the tail is cut too short, causing rectal or vaginal prolapse.  Some places recommend that the tail be left long enough to cover the lambs’ genitals.  In Maryland and some other U.S. states, the only requirement is that the remaining tail must be large enough to be lifted with a #2 pencil.  University of Maryland Sheep & Goat Extension Specialist Susan Schoenian admits that the policies “probably do not not go far enough in improving the welfare of lambs.”[8]

This lamb is being held on his back as a worker prepares to castrate him. (Photo: UKagriculture.com)

This lamb is being held on his back as a worker prepares to castrate him. (Photo: UKagriculture.com)

Male lambs are subject to an additional mutilation: most of them are castrated when they are anywhere from 48 hours old to six weeks old.  One of most common methods involves securing a tight rubber ring at the base of the scrotum, causing it shrivel up and fall off in 2 to 3 weeks.  Another similar method uses an “emasculator” to crush the blood vessels; again, the lack of blood supply causes the scrotum to eventually fall off.  Most gruesome of all is the full surgical method, where the scrotum is cut open and the testes are pulled out.  The wound is then allowed to “drain naturally.”   Research in Great Britain has revealed, not surprisingly, that this last method is the most painful one. 8

The shearing process is a difficult one for sheep.  Shearers are usually paid per sheep, not per hour; as a result they tend to rush.  The average experienced shearer processes 350 sheep a day for up to 4 weeks at a time.9 According to the Canadian Sheep Federation, “it is very easy to cut off the end of a teat”.  They recommend that if a sheep is seriously cut, disinfectant should be applied.  There is no mention of painkillers.10 Struggling sheep results in more intentional cruelty; one eyewitness stated that “[T]he shearing shed must be one of the worst places in the world for cruelty to animals … I have seen shearers punch sheep with their shears or their fists until the sheep’s nose bled. I have seen sheep with half their faces shorn off …”11

Most shearing today is done with an electric shearer, and sheep can be seriously injured if the operator is “inexperienced or careless.”12 13 This is particularly troubling in light of the fact that the wool industry is suffering from a shortage of professional shearers.14 15 Farms are not required to hire a professional shearer, though large farms are more likely to do so, provided one is available. Smaller farms often rely on someone who has practiced–or presumably, is practicing.[17] “16

Sheep are usually sheared once a year, generally before lambs are born, or in the spring, just before the weather begins to get warm.  This is when the sheep would gradually begin to lose their wool, and the time at which they have as much as possible.  Some sheep die from exposure to cold as a result of premature shearing.17 18

Mulesing

Mulesing is a common mutilation in the wool industry.  It involves slicing large chunks of skin and flesh away from the hindquarters of sheep in an attempt to combat flystrike, a painful condition in which flies lay eggs in the skin of Merino sheep.  The eggs hatch into maggots and an infestation develops which eats away at the skin of the sheep.  Flystrike can be fatal.19 Merino sheep are particularly susceptible to this condition because they have been bred to have wrinkled skin (more wrinkles means more wool per sheep) and because feces and urine can accumulate in the woolly area on the hindquarters, creating an ideal environment for flies.  Mulesing creates a bare, scarred patch of skin on the rump, which is less likely to attract flies.

The bloody hindquarters of sheep just after the mulesing process.

The bloody hindquarters of sheep just after the mulesing process.

Mulesing is mainly practiced in Australia, the world’s largest producer of wool.  There, 100 million sheep provide 25% of the world’s wool and 50% of the world’s Merino wool.  60% of Australian sheep are mulesed.  20 21 An increasing number of Merino farms do not resort to mulesing, proving that it as not, as some claim, “a necessary evil.”   Veterinarian Dr. John Auty, who formerly worked with the Australian Department of Primary Industry as the assistant director of the Bureau of Animal Health, has stated that “Mulesing does not free the sheep from blowfly strike, but proper husbandry practices, including close inspection of sheep, will reduce and virtually eliminate flystrike.”22 In the United Kingdom, where mulesing has been banned, insecticide and larvicide are the primary method of combatting flystrike.  Other successful tactics include breeding for bare-breech sheep, who have unwrinkled hindquarters, vaccinations, topical applications, and fly traps.  Diet and grazing management, a reduction in density of sheep flocks, and the elimination of tail docking have also proven effective. 23

One Australian farmer, who successfully controls flystrike using fly traps, chemical sprays, breed selection, and grazing management, described the resistance to ending mulesing as “a bit of old-boys’-club arrogance in a once-grand industry that is now struggling a bit.” 24

Though many countries around the world, including Canada and the United States, have expressed concerns about mulesing, they still import mulesed wool. However, about 60 international retailers (most of them in Europe) have chosen to boycott all Australian wool.25 26

In 2004, the Australian wool industry agreed to phase out mulesing by 2010, and in 2006, an appendix was added to Australia’s Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals which provided guidance on the best mulesing method.  The code, however, is a voluntary one: because mulesing is considered an ‘acceptable husbandry’ practice, it is exempt from animal welfare laws.27

In the summer of 2009, however, the wool industry announced that they would not be able to meet the 2010 deadline after all. 28 29 Alternatives to traditional mulesing have been proposed, such as attaching large clamps to the rumps of lambs which cut off the circulation of blood, causing chunks of skin to die and fall off over a period of weeks.  Animal activists have been unimpressed by these innovations.  The RSPCA expressed concerns about the pain they would cause, and while PETA admitted while though the plastic clips were perhaps less painful than being “skinned alive”, they were far from humane.30 31 Other options include an intradermal injection that would cause the skin to die and fall off, but it would require up to twenty shots per sheep.32 Meanwhile, experts say that mulesing would be rendered unnecessary in two years if farms would simply stop breeding Merino sheep and breed bare-breech sheep instead.33

Live Export

Sheep can live 15 years, but in general, they are slaughtered much younger because their wool production drops off after the age of 7 or so.34 In some places, these “spent sheep” are exported to other countries.  This is the case for sheep in Australia and New Zealand, where much of our wool comes from.  Approximately 6 million sheep are exported from Australia every year; it is a 1 billion dollar industry.  Meanwhile, the European Union has refused for a long time to accept live-exports of sheep, goats, and cattle, and in 2006, Australia put a temporary boycott on live-exports to Egypt. Most of the sheep are Merinos, and when they are deemed no longer productive, they are shipped to countries in the Middle East and North Africa, where animal welfare laws are non-existent. There they are either used in religious slaughter practices, which require that the sheep be alive upon receipt, or simply killed for meat–their throats are slit while they are still conscious.

Two levels of sheep crowded onto a live-export transport ship. About 1,000 die per voyage. (Photo: liveexportshame.com)

Two levels of sheep crowded onto a live-export transport ship. About 1,000 die per voyage. (Photo: liveexportshame.com)

At the beginning of their voyage, tens of thousands of sheep are crowded onto multi-leveled ships, where they suffer–and sometimes die–as a result of hunger, dehydration, overcrowding, and heat stress.35 Temperatures are extreme, exceeding 40°C with 90 percent humidity.36 These journeys can last up to 32 days, not including 5 days loading and 11 days unloading.  37 Sometimes the process moves much more slowly; in 2003, 50,000 sheep on board the cargo ship the Cormo Express suffered in searing heat for 80 days when their Saudi Arabian port, Jeddah, rejected them as diseased and no other country could be found to accept them.  Over 5,000 sheep died as a result of the ordeal.38 39 After over two months at sea, the cargo ship ended up sailing another 400 miles to the African port of Massawa, Eritrea.

Deaths during live transport are common.  Mortality rates can be as high as 4.4 percent–nearly 1,000 sheep per voyage–with 77 percent of deaths occuring during the voyage and 20 percent during the process of unloading, which has been described as “unnecessarily slow”. 40 The chaos of loading contributes to another 10 percent of on-board deaths, most injuries occuring when sheep lose their footing on the slippery floors and their hindlegs are splayed.

Some deaths occur as a result of suffocation and smothering. A ship only feeds a certain number of animals at a time, and the resulting competition can lead to sheep slipping underfoot to be smothered or crushed.  Researchers discovered that on one ship, 31% of deaths could be attributed to this cause.  At other times, the excessive heat forces the sheep to rush to ventilation systems, and again, the chaos and competition results in suffocation and smothering.

In 1990, 10,000 sheep died as a result of inadequate ventilation onboard the “state of the art” Cormo Express.  These mass disasters are not uncommon; in 1985, heat exhaustion resulted in the death of 15,000 sheep, and in 1996, 67,488 sheep died in a fire on the Uniceb. (8 days passed before any rescue attempt was made.)41

Sometimes feces on a transport ship accumulate to such a degree that the sheep cannot move. (Photo: livexportshame.com)

Sometimes feces on a transport ship accumulate to such a degree that the sheep cannot move. (Photo: livexportshame.com)

Despite the aforementioned rush for food, a surprising number of sheep actually die from starvation–about half of deaths can be attributed to this cause.  Some of them simply stop eating and drinking due to the trauma of the voyage; the industry refers this by a number of euphemistic names, including shy-feeding syndrome, inanition, anorexia, failure-to-eat syndrome, voluntary feed refusal, and persistent inappetance.42

The multi-leveled construction of the export ships are a major contributor to the spread of disease and infection.  There can be as many as 10 storeys, and feces from upper levels drop through to the lower ones.  Examinations by UK veterinarian P.M. Sidhom of the MV Maysora, a ship traveling from Australia to Egypt, revealed that “[l]iquid manure flowed into the food troughs, where the food was sodden and soiled with sheep manure from the decks above”.  The inspector stated that on lower decks, the high concentration of ammonia was a “major irritant” and that piles of manure were 8 to 10 centimetres deep.  A faulty water system caused one-quarter to one-third of the water troughs to overflow continuously, causing problems with muddly, liquid manure on the floors.43 Great quantities of antibiotics are added to the drinking water in an attempt to combat the filthy conditions on the ship, but sheep still contract salmonella, pneumonia, scabby mouth disease, and more.

During the journey itself, sick or injured sheep are often thrown into chutes which lead to macerators.  These chutes can be up to nine storeys long. In a 60 Minutes Australia broadcast, a rancher and veteran of live-export voyages explained the process: “…they drop them down a big laundry chute into a mincer at the bottom and it just smashes them up and squirts them out the side into the water. …in quite a lot of cases, the sheep are still alive. In theory, there is plenty of time to cut their throats and kill them first, but they just get put in the chute alive”. 44

A sheep being thrown from one transport truck to another. Such rough treatment often results in injury. (Photo: livexportshame.com)

A sheep being thrown from one transport truck to another. Such rough treatment often results in injury. (Photo: livexportshame.com)

When it comes to unloading, the aforementioned study by Sidhom reported that workers “frequently hit the animals with long sticks armed with rusty nails, with metal bars, and sometimes even with hammers”. They are loaded onto cargo trucks, often without bedding and “always without shelter against what is often an extremely hot sun.”45

Environment

There is an additional, collateral damage when it comes to the wool industry: in the U.S. and Canada, coyotes are legally and routinely killed off as a risk to sheep and other livestock.46 47 In Australia, the government allows landowners to slaughter massive numbers of kangaroos as pests because they are thought to compete with sheep and cattle for land.  (This idea has been proven incorrect.)48

As with all livestock production, the raising of sheep contributes significantly to climate change. (Learn more about the connection between animal agriculture and environmental destruction here.)  In New Zealand, for example, methane emissions, most of which are from sheep, make up 90% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.  At one point, members of the New Zealand government proposed taxing sheep farmers for emissions research, but the plan was eventually abandoned.

Water pollution is another concern.  Studies of two sheep farms in New Zealand discovered fecal contamination from manure “exceeded levels suitable for drinking and safe recreational use in virtually every reading since 1994, and in recent times … has well exceeded safe livestock drinking levels ….”  Sheep dip, a chemical which is used to rid sheep of parasites, can cause additional problems.  A study in Scotland of 795 sheep dip facilities found that 40% presented a risk of pollution, and cited specifically an incident in 1995 wherein a cup of used dip killed 1,200 fish downstream from where it had been dumped in a river.49


1. Canadian Co-operative of Sheep Growers Ltd. and the Canadian Sheep Federation, Wool Production in Canada, 2009

2. Gary Smith, Pulling the Wool Over Our Eyes, 4 Jan 2010

3. SheepandGoat.com, The welfare of docking and castrating lambs, 20 Dec 2009

4. Canadian Co-operative of Sheep Growers Ltd, Lambing Checklist, 2005

5. SheepandGoat.com, Docking, castrating, and disbudding, 2007

6. SheepandGoat.com, The welfare of docking and castrating lambs, 20 Dec 2009

7. SheepandGoat.com, Docking, castrating, and disbudding, 2007

8. SheepandGoat.com, The welfare of docking and castrating lambs, 20 Dec 2009

9. “Shearing Alternatives Under the Spotlight,” Country-Wide Northern 1 Nov. 2004 / Veterinary Education and Information Network, “Wool: The Major Sheep-Farm Product,” Sheep Health & Production

10. Canadian Co-operative of Sheep Growers Ltd. and the Canadian Sheep Federation, Wool Production in Canada, 2009

11. PETA.org, The Wool Industry

12. Canadian Co-operative of Sheep Growers Ltd. and the Canadian Sheep Federation, Wool Production in Canada, 2009

13. eHow.com, How to use Electric Sheep Shearers, 10 Apr. 2010

14. Sheep101, You Need a Haircut, 27 Jan. 2010

15. Alberta Sheep & Wool Commission, Shearing Your Sheep, 2007

16. Canadian Co-operative of Sheep Growers Ltd. and the Canadian Sheep Federation, Wool Production in Canada, 2009

17. Sheep101, You Need a Haircut, 27 Jan. 2010

18. PETA.org, Inside the Wool Industry

19. Sheep101, Sheep diseases A-Z, 10 Jul. 2010

20. Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals, Sheep and Goats

21. Australian Bureau of Statistics, “Year Book Australia, 2006,” 25 Jan. 2006

22. ABC Rural, Study finds bare breech sheep better than mulesing, 13 Mar. 2008

23. SavetheSheep.com, “The Urgent Need for a Permanent Ban on Mulesing and Live Sheep Exports in the Australian Wool Industry Based on Animal Welfare Concerns” 24 Mar. 2004

24. Richard Yallop, Farmers Strike a Blowie for Long-Suffering Sheep Australian 20 Dec. 2004

25. Animals Australia, Mulesing: Recent Developments

26. SavetheSheep.com, “H&M, Perry Ellis, Adidas, and others Boycott Australian Wool”, 24 Mar. 2004

27. Animals Australia, Mulesing: Current Situation

28. ABC Rural, Wool industry can’t meet deadline for ending mulesing, 22 July 2009

29. Brian Clancy, Anger on mulesing backdown, Weeklytimes Now, 29 July 2009

30. Nance Haxton, Plastic clip offered as mulesing alternative, AM, 11 Nov. 2005

31. Better Choices: Best Welfare Practice, Mulesing Alternatives for 2010

32. ibid

33. Kate Dowler, David Reed, Haley Cahalan, Bare breech gene may win PETA fight, Stock Journal, 15 Apr. 2005

34. Sheep101, Basic information about sheep, 12 Dec 2009

35. Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals, Sheep and Goats

36. SavetheSheep.com, “The Urgent Need for a Permanent Ban on Mulesing and Live Sheep Exports in the Australian Wool Industry Based on Animal Welfare Concerns” 24 Mar. 2004

37. Norris RT, Richards RB. 1989. Deaths in sheep exported by sea from Western Australia—analysis of ship Master’s reports. Aust Vet J 66:97-102

38. Cormo Express – New food and water supplies for sheep – still no resolution for sheep, PRNewswire, 6 Oct. 2003

39. SavetheSheep.com, “The Urgent Need for a Permanent Ban on Mulesing and Live Sheep Exports in the Australian Wool Industry Based on Animal Welfare Concerns” 24 Mar. 2004

40. Norris RT, Richards RB. 1989. Deaths in sheep exported by sea from Western Australia—analysis of ship Master’s reports. Aust Vet J 66:97-102

41. RSPCA Australia, History of Disasters at Sea

42. SavetheSheep.com, “The Urgent Need for a Permanent Ban on Mulesing and Live Sheep Exports in the Australian Wool Industry Based on Animal Welfare Concerns” 24 Mar. 2004

43. P.M. Sidhom, Welfare of cattle transported from Australia to Egypt, Australian Vet Journal vol 81, no 6, June 2003

44. 60 Minutes Australia, Ship of Shame, 21 Sept. 2003

45. P.M. Sidhom, Welfare of cattle transported from Australia to Egypt, Australian Vet Journal vol 81, no 6, June 2003

46. Sheep101, Controlling predators on sheep farms, 11 Feb 2010

47. Christine Endicott, Kill coyotes, farmers demand, Brockville Recorder and Times, 2010

48. Juliet Gellatley BSc, Under Fire, Viva!, 2001

49. PETA, Environmental Hazards of Wool


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