Sheep are raised in the US to produce meat (lamb and mutton) and for their wool and milk.
|Animal||Natural lifespan (on average)||Age at which they are typically killed|
|Lamb||12 years||4-6 months|
|Breeding Ewes*||12 years||4-6 years|
|Breeding Rams*||12 years||5 years|
*Sheep used for breeding are killed for cheap meat products at an older age, usually when they are past their breeding ‘prime’.
Ewes (female sheep) give birth to their young in the spring when the weather is at its mildest and there is plenty of grass.
Ewes are either ‘serviced’ by a ram (male sheep) or subjected to artificial insemination. In this instance, semen is collected from the ram using an electric probe. The ewes are then caught and held in place (usually by strapping them to a rack) before the semen is inserted into them. This is a painful and distressing procedure for both the ewe and the ram.
Between 2 to 6 million lambs die each year at birth or a few days old. [i] This is caused by disease, exposure, or malnutrition.
Naturally, ewes would give birth to a single lamb. However, through human manipulation, many sheep are now selectively breed 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 they can be force fed (through a tube into their stomach), bottle fed or sent to market to be sold.
In the past sheep would molt their coats naturally and farmers would collect their wool for use. As sheep have become more domesticated and selectively breed, they have been unable to molt naturally and now must be sheared so that they don’t overheat. Shearing also allows the farmers to collect more wool to sell. Sheep are usually sheared in the early summer months or, on occasions, before being housed in the winter.
The shearing process involves holding down the sheep on a wooden board outside or gathering them indoors in pens. This is a stressful procedure for these fearful sensitive animals and often leads to injury and much distress.
Shearers are usually paid by the volume of wool they collect, rather than by the hour. This encourages fast work and little regard for the welfare of the sheep. As PETA’s undercover footage shows, sheep are often cut in the process and sown together using a needle and thread – with no pain relief.
Today, the US is the 7th largest producer of wool globally. A sheep’s wool also produces a waxy substance called ‘lanolin’ which is used in many household and cosmetic products.
Most sheep in the UK are farmed outdoors and exposed to extreme weather conditions with little or no shelter. Only around 1% are reared in industrial systems. Housing is generally only used during the lambing season and for the fattening of lambs and milking sheep.
Housing the ewes at this late stage in their pregnancy is stressful as they would naturally prefer isolation prior to giving birth. The frustration and anxiety of their confinement and reduction in feeding often causes them to pull at their wool and bite their pens.
As Dr Gerald Coles, a senior researcher in veterinary medicine at Bristol University, states: ‘health is declining among the UK sheep flock’.
Many types of drugs are injected and fed to sheep in order to help prevent and manage the wide range of diseases currently affecting them. These diseases include scald, footrot, blowfly strike, scrapie, mastitis, lameness and even blindness.
The majority of US sheep farms experience some lameness in their flocks. Many sheep develop this crippling condition from footrot and scald. These diseases can be tackled through vaccination or treatments, but due to its contagious nature, many farmers will kill large numbers of sheep if they do not respond to treatment.
Ewes may also suffer from mastitis, a painful infection that causes the udder to harden and inflame. Again, sheep can be killed if they do not respond well to the treatment as their bodies are now considered valueless by the industry.
Blowfly strike is a problem affecting sheep during the warmer months. This usually occurs at their rear (where conditions are moist). Here the sheep are susceptible to blowflies whose maggots eat their flesh. An estimate of 12,000 sheep die every year due to blowfly. [ii] Some farmers will dock the tails of the lambs as a preventative measure – see below tail docking.
These are just some examples of the diseases experienced by sheep within the animal agriculture industry.
Sheep are transported long distances that cause them much stress, injury, and occasionally death. They frequently suffer from heat stroke, dehydration and overcrowding. In September 2012, 40 sheep were killed after inspection at Ramsgate Port in Kent.
Vets who examined the animals found that one had a broken leg, another was sick and more than 40 were severely lame. The RSPCA said at the time that none of the animals could reach their drink holders in the vehicle.
This incident led to the suspension of live exports from UK ports. Unfortunately this practice has now resumed.
Current laws in the UK allow sheep to be transported for up to 14 hours. A rest period for food and water must then be given before the journey can resume for a further 14 hours. [iii]
Before being transported to slaughter, the majority of sheep are taken to livestock markets. This involves long periods of standing in uncomfortable and crowded conditions.
Over 12 million sheep are slaughtered in the UK each year. [iv] Most lambs are slaughtered within the first year of their lives, between four to six months of age. Some may get to live for around 14 months.[v] The flesh from these lambs is known as ‘hogget’. After 1.5 years their meat is called ‘mutton’.
In the UK, the majority of sheep are stunned prior to being killed. The two methods used are penetrating captive bolt or electrical:
This is the most widely used method: an electrical current is passed through the animal’s brain via a large pair of tongs, causing temporary loss of consciousness.
Electrical stunning is not always successful and sheep can regain consciousness before their throats are slit. They struggle for several seconds before they bleed out.
Viva!’s undercover video captured this happening in one British slaughterhouse:
Penetrate captive bolt
A gun fires a metal bolt into the brain of the animal causing the animal to lose consciousness.
Male lambs are often castrated to prevent them from breeding, to reduce aggression, and to make them easier to handle. This procedure is common in the UK. Rubber rings or bands are fitted tightly round the neck of the scrotum. This cuts off the blood supply to the testes, causing them to later die and drop off. This process causes much pain for the lambs.
Other methods may also include crushing or surgical removal. Pain relief may be used during the actual procedure but it is not mandatory and so is not always used.
This is another common practice in the UK carried out on lambs in order to prevent fly strike and faeces build up – although many flocks are still affected to some extent by fly strike.
Tail docking is also carried out using a rubber ring which prevents blood flow and eventually causes the lamb’s tail to fall off. Some methods also include the use of a knife or docking iron. Again, pain relief may be used but it is not mandatory.
Intelligence and character
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 does 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 amongst 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 lambs 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. They are able to recognise one another and the faces of humans they know, even if they have been absent from their lives for a number of years. They respond to facial expressions and are able to distinguish great detail.
[ii] Sargiso, N., 2008. Sheep flock health: A planned approach. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
[iii] Defra, 2007. Welfare of animals during transport – sheep. [pdf] Available at:https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/69423/pb12544f-transport-sheep.pdf [Assessed 4 October 2014]
[iv] Defra, 2014. United Kingdom slaughter statistics August 2014. [pdf] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/355777/slaughter-statsnotice-18sep14.pdf[Assessed 10 October 2014]
[v] RSPCA, (no date). Farming sheep. [Online] Available at: http://www.rspca.org.uk/adviceandwelfare/farm/sheep/farming[Assessed 10 October 2014]