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Sheep mulesing

In Australia, sheep are commonly subjected to a painful procedure called mulesing. Breeding flystrike-resistant sheep is the practical and effective solution to ending painful mulesing in the wool industry.

In Australia each year, millions of lambs raised for wool are commonly subjected to a painful procedure called mulesing. During mulesing, fully conscious lambs are restrained while flaps of skin are cut away from their tail and hindquarters. This leaves bare scar tissue that is less attractive to flies and so reduces the risk of flystrike (maggot infestation). Australian woolgrowers are the only ones in the world mulesing lambs routinely.

The RSPCA believes transitioning flocks to sheep that are flystrike-resistant through genetic selection must be a priority for the wool industry, and in the meantime the use of pain relief should be mandatory.


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The issue

Mulesing is a surgical procedure that has been over-relied on to prevent flystrike in sheep farming and wool production for nearly 100 years.

Flystrike is a condition where blowflies lay their eggs on sheep, particularly in the folds of skin around the hindquarters and tail. The eggs hatch into larvae (maggots), and feed off the sheep’s flesh, risking blood poisoning and death if untreated.

To reduce the risk of flystrike, wool producers have traditionally cut flaps of skin from around the lamb’s hindquarters and tail to create an area of bare, scarred skin, which is less likely to attract blowflies. While the use of pain relief has increased, it only works to reduce pain after the procedure. Because of this, even with pain relief sheep still suffer significant pain and distress due to mulesing, the effects of which can last for several weeks.

Whilst flystrike itself does present a serious animal welfare concern, the substantial negative impacts of mulesing on sheep welfare cannot be ignored. In Victoria and Tasmania, it is a legal requirement that a person not mules a sheep unless the sheep is administered with pain relief. In all other states and territories, there is currently no mandatory requirement for producers to administer pain relief during or after the procedure.

What needs to change

While many producers do administer pain relief after mulesing, sheep still feel substantial pain during the procedure. In addition, pain relief only lasts hours to days, but mulesing wounds take weeks to heal. Pain relief should therefore not be considered a long-term solution, but rather an interim measure to reduce suffering while farmers take active steps to transition away from mulesing. The RSPCA believes that the wool industry must shift to long-term, sustainable solutions to prevent flystrike which eliminate the need for mulesing. This means transitioning flocks to lines of sheep that are naturally resistant to flystrike. Sheep that have less wrinkles are less susceptible to flystrike and can still produce the same wool yield. It’s a readily available solution that takes only a few years to achieve.

During the transition away from mulesing, the RSPCA believes that the use of pain relief must be mandatory, and that the declaration of mulesing (or other breech modification) status via the National Wool Declaration should be compulsory for all wool producers.

Both Australian and international fashion and retail brands are now steadily moving away from sourcing wool from mulesed sheep, in response to serious community concerns about sheep welfare.

Conscious consumers can do their part by choosing to purchase non-mulesed wool products. 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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