Sheep are raised to produce meat (lamb and mutton) and milk and for their wool. There are approximately 75 million in Australia. [i]
The reality for sheep
|Age at which they are typically killed|
|Lamb||12 years||4-10 months|
|Sheep raised for meat||12 years||2 years|
|Breeding Ewes*||12 years||4-6 years|
|Breeding Rams*||12 years||5 years|
|Sheep raised for wool||12 years||7 years|
*Sheep used for breeding are killed for cheap meat products at an older age, usually when they are past their breeding ‘prime’.
Under natural conditions, ewes (female sheep) give birth to their young in the spring when the weather is at its mildest and there is plenty of grass. In order to make the most profit, however, more Australian farmers have begun to manipulate their herds so that lambs are born even earlier, therefore beating the competition by getting ‘winter lambs’ to market in advance.
Approximately 15 million lambs die in Australia each year at birth or a few days old. [ii] This is caused by disease, exposure to cold weather, or malnutrition.
In nature, ewes would give birth to a single lamb. However, through human manipulation, many sheep are now selectively bred to produce two or three lambs, which is intended to increase the industry’s profitability.
These multiple births often lead farmers to introduce force adoption. As ewes have just two teats, the third triplet must be quickly found a ewe from whom they can feed. There can be issues with the ewe accepting the extra lamb, in which case the lamb can be force-fed through a tube into their stomach, bottle-fed or sent to market to be sold as cheap meat.
When it comes to making more lambs, ewes are either ‘serviced’ by a pre-selected ram (male sheep) or subjected to artificial insemination. There are three main methods in use in Australia, and the law does not require pain relief for any of them.
- The first is laparoscopic artificial insemination, which involves poking a long, metal rod through the ewe’s belly and into her uterus to deposit semen. The ewe is sedated and strapped to a ‘breeding cradle’ for this surgical procedure.
- The second is the cervical method, whereby the ewe’s hindquarters are elevated so that a worker can use a speculum and a flashlight to deposit sperm into her cervix.
- The third is the ‘shot-in-the-dark’ method, simply entails the deposit of ‘a large volume of diluted sperm’ directly into the ewe’s vagina. [iii]
When it comes to rams, semen is collected with the use of an electro-ejaculator, which requires that the ram be restrained while he is forced to ejaculate via electrical stimulation. [iv]
Wild sheep do not need to be sheared. They naturally grow a warm, woolly coat during the winter, and in summer, their coats thin out. Domestic sheep, however, have been bred to have an excess of wool.
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.[v] According to the Canadian Sheep Federation, “it is very easy to cut off the end of a teat”. Struggling sheep results in more intentional cruelty; a 2014 undercover investigation in 19 shearing sheds in Australia revealed workers punching, kicking, throwing, and stomping on sheep. One repeatedly twisted a ewe’s neck until it snapped, then kicked her head-first down a chute; another beat a lamb over the head with a hammer. Other footage showed sheep injured as a result of the shearing process having their wounds roughly sewn together without pain relief. [vi]
Undercover shearing cruelty (Animals Australia):
Mulesing is a common mutilation in the wool industry. It involves slicing large chunks of skin and flesh away from the hindquarters of lambs in an attempt to combat flystrike, a painful condition in which flies lay eggs in the wrinkled skin of Merino sheep, who have been specially bred to have wrinkles and therefore, more wool. The eggs hatch into maggots and an infestation develops which eats away at the skin of the sheep. Mulesing creates a bare, scarred patch of skin on the rump, which is less likely to attract flies. No pain relief is required for this very painful procedure.
Mulesed sheep (Animals Australia):
Mutilations video from Animals Australia:
In the United Kingdom, where mulesing has been banned, insecticide and larvicide are the primary method of combating flystrike. [vii] 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. [viii]
I hated (mulesing) and I hate seeing it done. People don’t realise a certain amount of sheep are mulesed and then . . . days later, they’ll die.
Lee Fletcher, Australian woolgrower [ix]
About 60 international retailers (most of them in Europe) have chosen to boycott all Australian wool in response to the controversy. [x] In 2004, the Australian wool industry agreed to phase out mulesing by 2010, but in 2009, they abandoned the deadline. [xi]
Most male lambs—whether raised for meat or for wool—are castrated when they are anywhere from 48 hours old to six weeks old. No pain relief is required unless the lamb is six months of age. 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. Most gruesome of all is the full surgical method, where the scrotum is cut open and the testes are pulled out. [xii] Research in Great Britain has revealed, not surprisingly, that this last method is the most painful one. [xiii]
Lambs have their tails “docked”, or cut off, when they are 24 to 48 hours old. (As with castration, no pain relief is required unless they are over six months old.) [xiv] 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. [xv] This process is acknowledged to be “painful to the lamb.” [xvi] Some farms simply chop the tail off with a knife. Sometimes the tail is cut too short, causing rectal or vaginal prolapse. [xvii]
Most sheep in Australia live outdoors. Though far superior to intense confinement, this also means that they can be exposed to extreme weather conditions with little or no shelter. A small number of sheep are intensively farmed, however, and it is a growing industry. Approximately 15% of Australian lambs spend the last six to eight weeks of their lives in feedlots, where they are kept in pens and fed a specific diet to ensure they reach their slaughter weight. There sheep are forced to eat grain instead of their natural diet of roughage and grass. [xviii] This can result in multiple painful and sometimes fatal conditions, including rectal prolapse, pulpy kidney, and even polio. [xix] There are additional concerns as well: a lack of space in which to move around, inadequate shelter (from extreme heat in particular), the build-up of wet manure, and excess dust. [xx]
Other diseases are also common and may require the liberal use of antibiotics: for example, scald, scabby mouth, blowfly strike, scrapie, mastitis, lameness and even blindness.
The majority of Australian sheep farms experience some lameness in their flocks. 80% of lame sheep develop this crippling condition from footrot and scald, both of which are bacterial diseases caused by excess moisture, warmth, and unsanitary conditions. Scald and footrot can be tackled through vaccination or various medical treatments, but due to its highly contagious nature, many farmers will kill large numbers of sheep if they do not respond to treatment. [xxi]
Ewes may also suffer from mastitis, a painful infection that causes the udder to become hardened and inflamed. This is more common in ewes whose nipples have been cut during the quick and chaotic process of being sheared for wool, as well as those living in crowded, wet, and dirty conditions. Ewes who have been bred to produce multiple lambs at a time are also susceptible. Again, these sheep will be killed if they do not respond well to the treatment, as their bodies are now worthless to the industry. [xxii]
A painful and sometimes fatal condition wherein flies and maggots burrow into damp skin.
Over the past thirty years Australia has exported more than 160 million [sheep, goats, and cattle] overseas. More than 2.5 million have died on those voyages alone. [xxiii]
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. These “spent sheep” are exported to other 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—frequently, their throats are slit while they are still conscious. This is the case for sheep in Australia, the world’s number one live exporter of sheep. [xxiv] Over 2 million sheep were exported from Australia last year; it is a 1.8 billion dollar industry. [xxv], [xxvi]
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. [xxvii] Temperatures are extreme, exceeding 40°C with 90 percent humidity. [xxviii] These journeys can last up to 32 days, not including 5 days loading and 11 days unloading. [xxix]
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”. [xxx]
When it comes to unloading, UK veterinarian P.M. Sidhom travelled on the MV Maysora, a live-export ship bound for Egypt, and 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 or into car boots, often without bedding and “always without shelter against what is often an extremely hot sun.” [xxxi]
Three sheep tied up and stuffed into boot:
Sheep being put into boot:
When it comes to land transport, workers can force sheep onto a truck with the use of electrical prods, and Australian animal welfare guidelines allow them to be transported for up to 48 hours without rest for food and water, or 28 hours for lambs. They are often transported in open-air trucks, exposed to wind chill or extreme heat and sun. [xxxii]
They were shaking, trembling…they could smell the blood, their eyes were absolutely wild. As they went in (to the killing box) some of them made sounds like crying babies. Of course they knew what was happening.
–an eyewitness account of sheep awaiting slaughter [xxxiii]
Approximately 30 million sheep are killed for their meat every year in Australia – 20 million of these are lambs. Lambs are slaughtered within the first year of their lives, between four to ten months of age. Others, sent to slaughter at around 14 months old, are known as ‘hogget’. After about two years, their meat is called ‘mutton’.
In Australia, the majority of sheep and lambs are stunned prior to being killed. The two methods used are penetrating captive bolt or electrical: [xxxiv]
- Electrical – An electrical current is passed through the animal’s brain via a large pair of tongs, causing temporary loss of consciousness.
- Penetrate captive bolt – A gun fires a metal bolt into the brain of the animal causing the animal to lose consciousness.
Stunning is not always successful, however. Sometimes sheep regain consciousness before they are hung upside down to have their throats slit. A recent undercover video of one Sydney abattoir, for example, revealed workers hanging up and skinning sheep while they struggled and kicked, apparently still conscious. [xxxv] (They were also filmed beating a pig over the head with a metal pipe and throwing a goat against a wall, among other acts of cruelty.) Though the industry decried the incident as that of a ‘rogue’ abattoir, further investigations showed that it had already been checked by a government regulator four times that year. [xxxvi]
Intelligence and character
Sheep make similar use of complex visual cues from the face to recognise each other, and other familiar species… Overall we have estimated that they can recognise at least 50 different individuals, although in reality the actual figure is probably much higher than this. They can also remember associations with specific faces for several years. Thus their recognition and memory abilities using faces are remarkably similar to those of humans.
— Dr Keith Kendrick, from the Babraham Institute, Cambridge, England
Sheep have a strong flocking instinct and are easily scared, sticking together for protection. They are highly social animals and love to graze on grass with each other. If sheep get separated or isolated they quickly become stressed: their heart rates increase, as do their stress hormones, making them restless and affecting their eating and drinking habits. To relax they often rub their heads together and nuzzle.
Ewes will nuzzle and lick their lambs and are very vocal with them, which helps their bonding process. Lambs will naturally suckle from their mothers for a few weeks, for one to two times per hour, staying with them for a few weeks before beginning to explore and develop social groups of their own. Group play is common among lambs and they are very curious of their surroundings.
Research has found that the vocal patterns of sheep change when they are isolated from their flock or when separated from their lambs. A ewe is even capable of distinguishing her lamb’s cry from great distances.
Professor John Webster at the University of Bristol found that sheep visibly express emotions, similar to humans. For example, when experiencing stress or isolation they will show signs of depression by hanging their heads.
The evidence suggests that sheep are very intelligent and thoughtful beings.
[ii] Neales, Sue, 3 September 2012. ‘End to the Silence About 15 Million Dead Lambs’. The Australian. Available at: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/nation/end-to-the-silence-about-15-million-dead-lambs/story-e6frg6nf-1226463482725 [Accessed 19 November 2014]
[iii] NSW Department of Primary Industries. Standard Operation Procedures – sheep, Artificial insemination. Available at: http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/agriculture/livestock/animal-welfare/general/livestock/sop/sheep/artificial-insemination [Accessed 18 November 2014]
[iv] NSW Department of Primary Industries. Standard Operation Procedures – sheep, Semen collection via electro-ejaculation. Available at: http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/agriculture/livestock/animal-welfare/general/livestock/sop/sheep/semen-collection-electro-ejaculation [Accessed 18 November 2014]
[v] “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
[vi] Withnall, Adam, 10 July 2014. ‘US and Australian wool industries exposed in shocking undercover footage captured by animal rights groups’. The Independent. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-and-australian-wool-industries-exposed-in-shocking-undercover-footage-captured-by-animal-rights-groups-9597552.html [Accessed 17 November 2014]
[vii] ‘Study finds bare breech sheep better than mulesing’. 13 March 2008. ABC Rural.Available at: http://www.abc.net.au/site-archive/rural/news/content/200803/s2188473.htm [Accessed 17 November 2014]
[viii] RSPCA, What is mulesing and what are the alternatives? Available at: http://kb.rspca.org.au/What-is-mulesing-and-what-are-the-alternatives_113.html [Accessed 20 November 2014]
[x] Animals Australia. Mulesing. Available at: http://www.animalsaustralia.org/issues/mulesing.php#toc4 [Accessed 19 2014]
[xi] Animals Australia. Mulesing Deadline Delay—Another Pain in the Backside. Available at: http://www.animalsaustralia.org/features/mulesing-deadline-delay.php [Accessed 19 November 2014]
[xii] NSW Department of Primary Industries. Standard Operation Procedures – sheep, Lamb marking. Available at: http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/agriculture/livestock/animal-welfare/general/livestock/sop/sheep/lamb-marking
[xiii] Shoenian, Susan, 18 August 2012. Small Ruminant Info Sheet: The welfare of docking and castrating lambs. Available at: http://www.sheepandgoat.com/articles/welfaredockcast.html [Accessed 19 November 2014]
[xiv] Australian Veterinary Association, 15 February 2013. 10.4-Taildocking and castration of lambs and sheep. Available at: http://www.ava.com.au/policy/104-tail-docking-and-castration-lambs-and-sheep [Accessed 18 November 2014]
[xv] Primary Industries Standing Committee, 2002. Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals, The Sheep 2nd Edition. Available at: http://www.publish.csiro.au/books/download.cfm?ID=5389 [Accessed 18 November 2014]
[xvi] Shoenian, Susan, 22 December 2009. Small Ruminant Info Sheet: Docking, castrating, and disbudding. Available at: http://www.sheepandgoat.com/articles/castdockdisb.html [Accessed 19 November 2014]
[xvii] Australian Veterinary Association.
[xviii] Consume with Care, 2014. Conventional Lamb/Sheep Farming. Available at: http://consumewithcare.org/lamb/ [Accessed 25 November 2014]
[xix] Meat and Livestock Australia. National procedures and guidelines for intensive sheep and lamb feeding systems. Available at: http://www.mla.com.au/News-and-resources/Publication-details?pubid=5920 [Accessed 25 November 2014]
[xx] RSPCA Australia Knowledge Base, 2014. What are the animal welfare issues associated with feedlots? Available at: http://kb.rspca.org.au/What-are-the-animal-welfare-issues-associated-with-feedlots_120.html [Accessed 25 November 2014]
[xxi] Biosecurity Tasmania, 11 July 2014. Lameness in sheep and goats. Available at: http://dpipwe.tas.gov.au/biosecurity/animal-biosecurity/animal-health/sheep/lameness-in-sheep-or-goats [Accessed 19 November 2014]
[xxii] Department of Agriculture and Food, 7 November 2014. Mastitis in sheep. Available at: https://www.agric.wa.gov.au/management-reproduction/mastitis-sheep [Accessed 19 November 2014]
[xxiii] RSPCA, 2014. Live Export.Available at: http://www.rspca.org.au/campaigns/live-export [Accessed 19 November 2014]
[xxiv] Meat and Livestock Australia, 2014. Sheep. Available at: http://www.mla.com.au/Cattle-sheep-and-goat-industries/Industry-overview/Sheep [Accessed 19 November 2014]
[xxv] Sheepmeat Council of Australia, 2013. Live Export. Available at: http://www.sheepmeatcouncil.com.au/keytopics/topic1/ [Accessed 19 November 2014]
[xxvi] Meat and Livestock Australia, 2014. Live Export. Available at: http://www.mla.com.au/Prices-and-markets/Trends-and-analysis/Sheepmeat-and-lamb/Live-exports [Accessed 19 November 2014]
[xxvii] Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals, Sheep and Goats. Available at: http://www.humanefood.ca/sheep_goats.html [Accessed 19 November 2014]
[xxviii] 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
[xxix] 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
[xxx] 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
[xxxi] Sidholm, PM. ‘Welfare of cattle transported from Australia to Egypt’. Australian Vet Journal Vol 81, No 6, June 2003 pp. 364-365 Available at: http://www.liveexportshame.com/pmsidholm_maysora_june2003.htm [Accessed 19 November 2014]
[xxxiii] Animal Liberation Australia. Sheep. Available at: http://www.alv.org.au/issues/sheep.php [Accessed 20 November 2014]
[xxxiv] Primary Industries Standing Committee, 2002. Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals, Livestock at Slaughtering Establishments. Available at: http://www.publish.csiro.au/books/download.cfm?ID=2975 [Accessed 25 November 2014]
[xxxv] Rosenberg, Jen and Ben Cubby, 10 February 2012. ‘Covert evidence of cruelty halts abattoir’. Sydney Morning Herald. Available at: http://www.smh.com.au/environment/animals/covert-evidence-of-cruelty-halts-abattoir-20120209-1rx7w.html [Accessed 25 November 2014]
[xxxvi] Rosenberg, Jen and Ben Cubby, 10 February 2012. ‘Covert evidence of cruelty halts abattoir’. Sydney Morning Herald. Available at: http://www.smh.com.au/environment/animals/covert-evidence-of-cruelty-halts-abattoir-20120209-1rx7w.html [Accessed 25 November 2014]