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Wool... the Reality for the Sheep
by Danielle Curnoe, Vegan Views 77 (Autumn 1997)

Why do vegans make a fuss about wool? Surely there can't be any harm in taking wool off a sheep. They grow too much anyway. If you think along these lines, this article by Danielle Curnoe taken from Vegan News by the Vegan Society of New South Wales will set you right.

Think winter, think wool - nice thick wool blankets fluffy woollen socks. Sounds good doesn't it? Now think again. Australia's history with the sheep goes so far back into our (white) history that the wool industry has become deeply ingrained into our psyche. However, what cost has riding the sheep's back had on the sheep themselves?

Australia currently has over 145 million sheep for shearing and produces 80% of the wool used in clothing. The industry is worth $2.8 billion per year to Australia's economy. On the surface of it this industry looks like a mutually beneficial one - after all, sheep grow wool naturally so they need to be shorn. Right? Wrong. So many people think this is the case - if only they knew the truth. There are many reasons to justify the boycott of wool, from the conditions in which the sheep are kept through to the effect the wool industry has on our own unique native animals.

Perhaps I should start with the most obvious myth. Sheep need to be sheared. OK, so sheep do grow wool naturally. This is where the parallel between myth and truth stops. Sheep grow wool as protection for themselves. As a result, they have evolved to grow just enough wool for protection from the cold and to keep cool in the summer. Wild sheep do not need to be sheared. Their time of shedding occurs when it is of benefit to them. In Australia, domestic sheep are shorn in spring, after lambing, before they would naturally shed their winter coats. To get all the shearing done in time, it starts before it is healthy for the sheep. As a result, an estimated one million sheep die from exposure after premature shearing. Not only is the time of shearing unsuitable for the sheep, but the way in which it is done can be quite damaging for the sheep;"...flies feed on shearing wounds or the thin, exposed skin which delays wound healing or causes wounds..."


As the Brambell report comments in the well known look into sheep husbandry: "sheep ... have all the behaviour patterns which have been associated with a highly organised family and clan structure appropriate for ranging over wild and desolate country". Undeniably, sheep in this country are often allowed to range over desolate country. In these instances it is not to the benefit of the sheep, but because there is approximately only one watcher per 2,000 head of sheep. "Every year, in Australia alone, about ten million lambs die before they are more than a few days old. This is due largely to unmanageable numbers of sheep and inadequate stockmen". Although this allows the sheep some freedom away from the watchful eye of human intrusion, it also allows physical problems to go untreated and, in some cases, become much worse. This is especially true in southern Australia, where the rainfall is concentrated in a few months of the year and where almost half of all Australian sheep live.

Two major diseases that result from this are fleece rot and foot rot. Fleece rot is undoubtedly as painful for the sheep as it sounds. If the rain penetrates the skin of the sheep through its wool for five straight days, serum leaks from the skin into the fleece. The skin of the sheep becomes discoloured and an odious smell is given off. Flies and bacteria are attracted to the moisture and flystrike often results.

Footrot causes great distress to the sheep and can actually result in the sheep's refusing to stand on its feet. It erodes the skin and area between the hoof, causing the horn to separate from the underlying soft tissue (just imagine the quick around your finger nails pulling away from your finger, on a large scale). Another result of lack of sheep raisers is the widespread problems of lice. "Surveys of flock prevalence of lice in NSW have provided figures of between 15% and 23%. In spite of efforts to reduce the prevalence ... lice still cause substantial losses to the sheep industry." Although not a deadly disease, discomfort to the sheep must be considerable (imagine how discomfited you would be if forced to live with a permanent case of lice in your hair... scratch, scratch!)


Along the same lines as lice is flystrike. Although partly a result of lack of labour, flystrike differs from lice in one important way: if left, it is fatal. The five most common types of flystrike are body strike, poll strike, pizzle strike, breech strike, and wound flystrike. The flies seek out the moist areas of the sheep (such as around the backside) and lay their eggs. The maggots, when hatched, initially live and feed in the moist skin of the sheep and slowly move out to feed on the healthy skin. Eventually, the maggots eat right into the flesh and finally the muscles.

Action Magazine describes flystrike thusly: The true horror of flystrike cannot be described or imagined. The sheep's flesh is slowly consumed by thousands of swarming maggots until death finally results. In the meantime, the animals become so distressed they cannot eat, drink or sleep. Sheep can die within a few days but many linger for up to several weeks, often in the burning sun without relief from shade. "It results in millions of slow agonising deaths each year."

The most common antidote to flystrike is prevention. Sounds good doesn't it? Prevention is always better than cure. Uhuh, wrong again. What this prevention involves is an operation called mulesing. This is quite a well-known operation that has caused a substantial outcry from animal-caring groups but still continues. It is outlawed in many countries, including the U.K. What it involves is the slicing away (literally) of folds of skin from beneath the sheep's tail area using shears. It is done without anaesthetic. The way the sheep is cut is: two cuts down the tail, two down beside the anus and then to the vulva and finally across the top of the tail. The RSPCA recommends that "the mulesing of sheep must only be performed where it has been established for a particular geographical location that only by this animal husbandry technique will the certainty of mulestrike be minimised." There are around 100 million sheep who go through the pain of mulesing each year. To compound matters, merino sheep in Australia have been bred to hold half their body weight in wool. By increasing the folds in the sheep's skin, the moist area is increased, which leads to more chance of flystrike. Given the choice, would you prefer the sheep who provided your woollen jumper to have been through this barbaric operation, or to have suffered from the horrible disease of flystrike?


Other common animal husbandry practices are dehorning, castration and docking. Let me quote the RSPCA's acceptable techniques for performing these surgeries on lambs:

Dehorning - Lambs: (i.e., less than twelve weeks of age). i. Cautery - using heat only; and ii. Physical removal of the horn bud, using scraper blade or dehorning shears. No anaesthetic required.
Castration - Juvenile Males:
a. Knife - no anaesthetic necessary. The animal must be appropriately restrained, and adequate post-operative drainage essential; and
b. Rubber rings. This must be applied according to the manufacturer's recommendation Vaccination against tetanus should be given. No anaesthetic is required.
a. knife; and
b. Rubber rings.

All sounds pretty painful doesn't it?!


A new breed of sheep is the Hyfer. This breed of sheep has been developed to produce more lambs year-round. Two of its major advantages over other breeds are its capability for 8-monthly lambing and its higher lambing rate. The Hyfer is bred for meat-eating. However, it illustrates the way selective breeding is placing more stress upon the sheep and encouraging disease even further: "with the increasing interest in shortening the lambing interval and the proposals to lamb every 8 months, there will be an increasing number of flocks where ... disease is likely to become more widespread and is likely to cause significant losses in some flocks". So, with the lack of farmhands, and the increasing number of sheep resulting from more frequent pregnancies, sheep handlers worry about an increase of infectious diseases, abortion, and metabolic diseases.

As if being a sheep in a paddock isn't bad enough, there is now a growing trend to bring sheep indoors. For many in the wool-growing industry, the emphasis is now on superfine wool. From 1986-1990, fine wools accounted for about 35% of shorn wool. In fact, the CSIRO sees the development of superfine wool as being a significant initiative. To ensure that the wool of these superfine Merinos stays superfine, sheep have now been brought indoors, to be kept in individual groups or pens.

It would seem that when the sheep was first introduced to Australia (with the First Fleet) very little thought had been given to the impact of cloven-hooved animals. The sheep thrived on the food that Australian vegetation provided, being able to be left free to roam and eat. By 1939, however, concerns were expressed about the impact so many of these foreign animals were having on our dry landscape.


Each year, an estimated five million kangaroos are killed as a result of the wool industry (native animals are seen as damaging pests). The yellow footed rock wallaby has become an endangered species because sheep have devoured the native flora upon which it feeds. Imagine an Australian landscape devoid of koalas, kangaroos, and emus. The picture doesn't seem quite right, does it?

If you aren't already rethinking the cost of that woollen blanket and those fuzzy woollen socks, here is one final thought: those long suffering sheep end up being murdered anyway! Once its prime wool-growing days are over, the sheep will most likely be sold to the meat market. This may involve being sold to the live sheep export trade - probably to the Middle East - or being used where poor quality meat is acceptable. Some breeds of sheep, such as the Corriedale, are used for both wool and meat production. By using wool, you are still inadvertently encouraging the meat industry. For many people the above cruelties are just added incentives for avoiding wool. The main reason is the reason they avoid all animal products: why exploit an animal if you don't have to? There are alternatives to wool. For the sake of those intelligent, feeling sheep, please don't think wool - think cotton or synthetics instead.

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Cross-reference: Fur, Leather, Wool and Silk