I received an email recently that surprised me, initially. But 2 seconds later I realised I was more surprised that I hadn’t received this question far earlier.
The question was simply – is your wool from non-mulesed sheep? So to answer this question right up front, in case that is all you want/need to know, the answer is YES, our wool is from non-mulesed sheep.
P.S. We have checked. We know our wool. We do NOT use mulesed wool.
Now, to dive in deeper and maybe to educate about the process of mulesing, the background and the various breeds of sheep that will determine the need for mulesing. PLUS, please know at this point – I will be explaining the specific processes and it may offend some. So if you do not wish to know the specific ins and outs, please stop reading now!
Also, one final point before continuing further, I will preface this, to say that I am 3rd generation sheep/wool industry and I have also participated in shearing, crutching, roust-a-bouting, mulesing and even hand rearing orphaned sheep (that was my favourite bit) all through my school years, both primary and secondary. However, I will try to find a neutral aspect in explain the whys and hows etc, including benefits, alternatives and disadvantages of this process.
What exactly is mulesing?
Mulesing was developed in 1927 and for over 80 years it has been a routine surgical husbandry procedure for the majority of sheep in Australia.
It involves the surgical (with a blade) stripping away of wool bearing skin from the breech (basically around the backside) of some breeds of sheep. It leaves a large raw and open wound – of course NOT down to meat sinew or such, which is then powdered with anti bacterial powder to prevent infections as the skin heals as well as a pain relief treatment. As the skin heals to scar tissue, it leaves a smoother skin surface which aids significantly in the prevention of flystrike (myiasis).
Good Lord, WHY?
If you have ever spent any time at all in Australia, particularly where there is livestock, you will know about that horrifically annoying BLOWFLY and many other flies. Unfortunately for sheep, and the natural build of some particular breeds, it allows the blowflies to lay eggs in and around the rear end, amongst all the urine and faeces. When the eggs hatch to maggots, well, they need to eat, and this is where is gets really disgusting, the maggots start to eat away the living flesh of the sheep. Literally, eating them from inside out. It is disgusting, painful and a very slow way for the sheep to die.
The mulesing, as I mentioned above, leaves a smoother skin surface, AKA the scar tissue, which tends to be tougher than normal skin, which results in far fewer little nooks and crannies for the flies to lay their eggs and begin the process of flystrike.
Now, please understand – the farmers would never do this simply to be cruel. They know the stress it causes their sheep, but the alternative of watching their sheep die while being eaten alive is far more excruciating for everyone. Farmers do love their animals. They have a connection that many would never understand. It is not just about money, because, lets face it, farming is bloody hard, and the payoffs are often less than a Maccas trainee salary. Soooo…… just know that they do these things because they DO care. Tough love, I guess you could say.
OK, you said SOME breeds…..what’s the difference and how can I tell?
In Australia, we are renowned for our absolutely stunning super fine wool, predominantly from the Merino breed. Merinos, unfortunately, are the main breed that requires mulesing, this is because they have very wrinkly skin – therefore they have all those nooks and crannies that the blowflies love so much. As a point of difference, the Polwarth breed, for example, are what is called a smooth bodied breed. The skin is smooth, therefore no nooks and crannies, therefore no requirement to mules, as they naturally reduce the risk for flystrike.
How does mulesing impact the health of the sheep?
So, I did some investigating with this, and here are some stress responses to assess:
- Mulesing is practiced on approx. 70% of Merino sheep in Australia.
- Shearing produces a stress response for a period of 1 hour post shearing.
- Mulesing produces a stress response similar to shearing, however behaviour changes resolve in 24-48hours.
- Flystrike produces a stress response similar to shearing and mulesing for the period of infection. However, this could occur every single year of the sheep’s life (even multiple times a year). It may also result in death of stock – in an enduring and painful manner.
- Annual chemical treatment to prevent flystrike may allow sheep to experience equivalent or better stress responses over their lifetime. But this is expensive and very time heavy. Plus, the flies may become immune to excessive chemical treatment over time.
So what’s being done about this practice?
Since 1979, when the Australian Wool Industry agreed to actively reduce (and potentially eliminate) the practice of mulesing, there have been many advancements.
Sadly however, the 2010 deadline was not met, and there is still the majority of ‘wrinkled skin’ sheep being mulesed in Australia.
On a brighter note, though, here are some of the alternatives that farmers are investigating and developing:
Targeted sheep genome. However, this is a very delicate process to ensure the wool remains fine, the sheep’s health and wellbeing is not impacted or lamb failures (pregnancy or births).
There are intradermal options being assessed by the CSIRO for stress levels and success rates.
Plastic clips – I think these stretch the skin taut – much like a facelift??? but for the butt
Liquid nitrogen (the stuff used to get rid of warts on humans)
Preventative insecticides- however NSW DPI have been studying the resistance to these over time.
What’s the takeaway on all this?
So whilst on the outside, it is an awful and painful methodology, the wool industry is absolutely taking steps to reduce and hopefully eliminate the need for mulesing. Its just a slow process, testing, assessing and testing again, whilst ensuring the testing does not stress the animals needlessly.
Just because you see Australian wool, does not automatically mean the sheep have been mulesed, so by all means ASK THE QUESTION! If the retailer or manufacturer doesn’t know – they have not taken into account the animals welfare before selling the items…..just saying!
I hope you learned a little something on todays somewhat unpleasant topic. I did feel the need to educate and reassure our customers, that whilst there are many who oppose farming practices in general, here at Wooly Mates, we do our due diligence to ensure the least amount of stress is experienced for our wool producing sheep.