Australia, the world's leading wool producer, is the only country where farmers still routinely cut huge chunks of skin and flesh from lambs' backsides – often without any pain relief – in a gruesome procedure known as "mulesing".
Australia produces more than half the world's merino wool. Merino sheep, who are not native to Australia and are unsuited to the humid climate, have been bred by the wool industry to have excessively wrinkled skin in order to grow more wool all over their bodies and are extremely susceptible to a condition called "flystrike", in which blowflies lay eggs in the moist folds of their woolly skin including around the eyes, horns, genitals and anus. Flies are particularly attracted to the moisture and urine that collect in the folds of flesh around sheep's tails.
Even though it is not widely practiced anywhere else in the world, merino sheep farmers in Australia continue to perform the barbaric practice of "mulesing", in which chunks of skin and flesh are cut off the lamb's backsides with tools resembling gardening shears. This mutilation is performed in a crude and cruel attempt to produce smooth, scarred skin that won't collect moisture and harbour fly eggs. But the exposed, bloody wounds often become infected and can actually attract more flies, leading to flystrike before the wound has healed. Some farmers use vise-like mulesing clips that clench the skin until it dies and sloughs off. Sheep who have undergone the mulesing mutilation can still suffer slow, agonising deaths from flystrike.
Mutilating sheep is not only cruel but also ineffective. There are several humane options already being used successfully by many farmers in Australia, and New Zealand has virtually stopped mulesing altogether. Basic methods of preventing flystrike include applying insecticides during fly season, vigilant monitoring and treatment of sheep and regular crutching (removal of wool from around the tail), jetting (applying an anti-parasitic spray) and drenching (de-worming), which reduce the risk of soft faeces collecting on the sheep's coats. These procedures should be done in any case, whether the sheep are mulesed or not, in order to prevent flystrike on other areas which mulesing does nothing to protect. Farmers should always be watching over their sheep, rather than sending them out into a paddock for six months at a time without monitoring them. Better husbandry is the answer, not mutilating animals.
The most obvious and humane solution to the mulesing issue for sheep farmers is to breed less wrinkly sheep who do not need to be mulesed. Experts state that an intensive breeding programme could produce an entire flystrike-resistant flock within two years.
"Selective breeding for sheep with a naturally bare and wrinkle-free breech area, resistant to flystrike, is widely considered the best long-term alternative to mulesing."
– Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation
A growing number of Australian farmers don't mules. Companies such as SRS Wool and I-Merino are already producing wool without mulesing sheep, and New Zealand has been free of mulesing for nearly 10 years.
"It is not difficult to breed a plain-bodied Merino sheep that does not need to be mulesed, has superior meat traits and produces high fleece weights of low diameter wool."
– Jim Watts, Merino Australia
With international retailers such as Hugo Boss, Adidas, Perry Ellis and H&M as well as numerous others pledging to move away from mulesed wool or implementing an outright ban on wool from lambs who have been mulesed, the market demand for bare-breech (no wool around their backsides) or plain-bodied sheep (who do not need to be mulesed is constantly growing).
"The move to non-mulesed Merinos is a holistic approach .... It has not cost us money but in fact has been an income earner and made us better managers."
– Andrew Michael, South Australian Wool Producer
Sheep used for wool in Australia, as well as other wool-producing countries, routinely endure other mutilations as well, including castration, having tag holes punched in their ears and having their tails chopped off, all without any painkillers. During shearing, many sheep are cut by careless workers, who are usually paid by volume or by the sheep, not by the hour, which encourages fast work without regard for the welfare of the animals. Says one eyewitness, "[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 …." Every year, millions of lambs die before the age of 8 weeks from exposure or starvation, and mature sheep die every year from disease, lack of shelter and neglect. Mulesing makes the already miserable life of Australian sheep used for wool even worse.
When their wool production declines, millions of sheep are shipped to slaughter in the Middle East on crowded multilevel ships. These live exports, which can last for weeks, often go to countries where animal welfare regulations are non-existent. The suffering sheep may be dragged off the ships, loaded onto trucks and dragged by their ears and legs to unregulated slaughterhouses, where their throats are slit, frequently while they are still conscious.
Join PETA in calling on the Australian government to demand an end to mulesing and to insist that the wool industry implement an aggressive breeding programme to produce sheep less-susceptible to flystrike so that there will be no more excuses for mulesing.
Please urge the Australian Prime Minister to support an end to the cruel practice of mulesing. And please join the millions of people all over the world who know that compassion is the fashion. Save a sheep–don't buy wool.