It’s the serious animal welfare issue affecting around 10 million Merino lambs in Australia every year, yet many Australians aren't even aware it’s happening.
Mulesing is a painful husbandry procedure where lambs are restrained while crescent-shaped flaps of skin are cut from around their tail using sharp shears. In every state except Victoria where the use of pain relief is mandatory, the procedure can be performed without pain relief and is up to the discretion of the producer.
Australia is a leading global producer of wool, yet we are woefully behind in prioritising animal welfare for our farm animals. With New Zealand banning mulesing by law in 2018, Australia is now the last remaining country where it’s practiced.
So why do we stubbornly hold on to this husbandry practice that so clearly causes pain and distress to young sheep?
Merinos are the most common breed of sheep used for wool production in Australia, and due to the woolly wrinkles and folds in their skin, particularly the traditional Merinos, they are susceptible to flystrike. This is where the folds around the tail and top of the hind legs can become moist with excreta which attracts blowflies that will lay their eggs in the area and once hatched, the larvae eat away at the sheep’s flesh. If left untreated flystrike is fatal.
Of course, flystrike itself is a serious welfare concern, and mulesing is seen as a quick and mostly effective method of controlling it, which explains its popularity with producers. However, the substantial challenges to sheep welfare from mulesing cannot be ignored – nor can the reality that other options are available.
The animal welfare cost.
Mulesing is painful and traumatising for sheep. While there are producers that do use pain relief following mulesing, this does not make the procedure painless and is not a long-term solution to the risk, suffering and stress that mulesing causes.
While the procedure itself is quick, the subsequent pain is long lasting, anywhere from 48 hours to several days or even weeks and the resulting wound can take weeks to heal. Lambs that have been mulesed can become introverted, socialise less, and exhibit behavioural indicators of pain such as hunched standing and less time resting and feeding. The mulesed lamb may also avoid humans and in particular the person who mulesed them in the weeks following, a clear indicator of the fear and trauma the lamb experienced from the procedure.
There’s a better way.
Wrinkly breeds like Merino sheep were originally thought to grow higher quality wool and more of it, which has led to an over breeding of Merinos in Australia that are highly susceptible to flystrike.
But we now know this belief is unfounded, and so it makes sense for Australian wool producers to transition to flocks of sheep that are naturally resistant to flystrike. This means sheep that have fewer wrinkles and can still produce the same wool yield. It’s a pain-free solution that’s available to the industry, and while it would take a few years, it would save millions of lambs from the extensive pain and distress they currently endure.
In the meantime, for as long as mulesing is allowed to continue, the RSPCA believes the use of pain relief must be mandatory in all states across Australia and wool producers should be required to declare the use of mulesing and other breech modification methods via the National Wool Declaration.
Conscious consumers can do their part by choosing to purchase non-mulesed wool products. Many brands such as Country Road and David Jones have already pledged to move away from mulesed wool. If your favourite brand hasn’t already disclosed their position on mulesing, contact them directly to find out about their animal welfare policies.
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