Mulesing is a painful surgical procedure that we hear a lot about when it comes to farming sheep. In Australia the practice of mulesing is legal without pain relief in every state and territory, except Victoria. Continuous efforts have been made to phase out and ban the mutilation altogether. So why does it still happen, and are there other ethical issues associated with wool, beyond mulesing? Emma Hakansson, the Founder and Director of Collective Fashion Justice, explores this issue on the latest Voiceless Blog.
The practice of mulesing
Today, over 70% of the Australian sheep flock is made up of Merino sheep, with the remainder being Merino crossbred sheep, and other breeds of sheep. Merino sheep have been selectively bred to have more and finer wool than their ancestors. In fact, the mouflon, the animal ancestor of modern-day sheep, had a thick wool coat that simply shed in the summer. Now, sheep are selectively bred with so much wool that it must be shorn off of them. The problem with this, is that all this wool, when combined with urine and faeces on the big, fluffy backsides of sheep, attracts flies. Flies can lay eggs in the skin of sheep, resulting in hatching larvae eating this skin. This is called fly-strike.
In response to flystrike, the practice of mulesing was introduced. Mulesing still occurs throughout the majority of the Merino wool industry in Australia, and although there is a move towards the use of pain relief, it is not legally required to be used, except in Victoria. During mulesing, the skin around the rear of young lambs is painfully cut off with sharp shears, and undercover footage of the mutilation shows young lambs in extreme distress.
Fly-strike is indeed a horrific experience for lambs, and so the wool industry claims that mulesing is a necessary solution. However, there are a wide range of flystrike prevention options available, including crutching (shearing around the rear) and selective breeding (without wrinkles or wool on the rear), which have proven to be effective alternatives to mulesing. There is, arguably, no reason to subject lambs to such extreme cruelty as mulesing.
Efforts to ban mulesing and industry response
Many brands pay more to use and sell certified non-mulesed wool, while some countries have called for boycotts of wool from mulesed sheep. Other countries, such as New Zealand, have banned the practice entirely. Research has found that less than one quarter of Australians ‘approve’ of mulesing, and organisations like FOUR PAWS, PETA and Animals Australia have pushed for a ban on mulesing in the country for years. Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) committed to phase out mulesing by 2010, but later back-pedalled on this promise. In doing this, the industry stated that it would not act upon the wishes of animal rights advocates and in response to the public outcry around this decision, AWI sought specialist advice to combat bad press led by advocates rather than changing the state of mulesing in the industry.
One of the primary concerns the wool industry has with banning mulesing is most clearly presented in a quote relating to a potential mulesing ban, from the chairman of the New South Wales Farmers Wool Committee [when speaking to legal mandates]: ‘the concern is, where will this demand for pain relief stop?’ The wool industry appears to be significantly concerned with public perception, and a public interest in animal protection which may change the status quo of cruel, unmedicated ‘surgical procedures’.
Despite these challenges, advocacy does work, even if slowly. In the state of Victoria, mulesing now requires pain relief. While mulesing is a cruel practice, even with pain relief — as the effectiveness of different relief methods vary, especially as the open wound takes time to heal and for more ‘philosophical’ reasons, around our right to cause fear and impede on another individuals’ bodily autonomy — this is progress.
Other lamb mutilations
If mulesing were banned, lambs would still be under the knife. Industry wide, week-old lambs are legally tail docked, and castrated if they are male. The most common methods of tail docking and castration in Australia is with the use of a hot knife, as well as with tight rubber rings which cut off circulation. Again, for lambs under six months old no pain relief is required, yet there is very little scientific basis for this exception.
While a ban on mulesing would reduce the suffering of sheep immensely, this is not the only problem farmed sheep face. Similarly, while cases of shearing violence are extensively documented, all of these welfare issues need to be understood within a wider context of exploitation: sheep bred in the wool industry all end up in slaughterhouses.
A slaughter industry
Most sheep who are bred for their wool are also slaughtered and sold as ‘meat’. In fact, industry resources refer to certain breeds of wool-bearing sheep as ‘dual-purpose’ for this reason. Some sheep are slaughtered after some years of regular shearing, until they are ‘cast for age’. This means that the wool of the sheep has degraded, becoming thinner and more brittle (just like ageing human hair) to a point at which the sheep is considered by the industry more profitable dead than alive. These sheep are generally slaughtered about halfway into their natural lifespan, at about 5 to 6 years old. Often their meat is exported overseas, as the market for older sheep flesh, or mutton, is not significant in Australia.
Other sheep, who are in fact still lambs, are slaughtered in the meat industry at about 6 to 9 months old and sold as chops and other meat cuts. These lambs are often shorn before their slaughter, or, depending on the market value at the time, they are slaughtered without being shorn, as their woolly skin can be valuable for the production of boots, jackets and other fashion goods.
Sheep as individuals
While sheep bred for their wool face other ethical issues, such as selective breeding for twins and triplets, winter lambing, and live export, the greatest problem sheep face in the wool industry is the one which placed them there – laws which fail them. In a speciesist society that discriminates against some individuals due to their species membership, laws only protect certain animals to differing degrees. Australian animal protection laws create double standards for farmed animals – like sheep, cows, and pigs, denying them the same protections that dogs or cats are offered. None of these non-human animals however, are recognised as legal persons, which renders them as ‘property’ in the eyes of the law.
Sheep are individual beings who are sentient, capable of feeling pleasure as much as pain, joy as much as fear. Particular mutilations are not the only ethical downfalls of wool, they are simply symptoms of an industry built upon the transformation of individuals into ‘things’ to be used for profit. For us to truly treat sheep ethically, we must first see them as more than a means to a monetary ends. When we do that, we see that sheep are not really mere materials at all.
Emma Hakansson is the Founder and Director of Collective Fashion Justice, an organisation dedicated to creating a fashion system that upholds total ethics, by prioritising the life of all animals; human and non-human, and the planet. She has worked producing campaigns for multiple animal rights organisations, and is a writer.
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