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No matter how it’s spun, mulesing and sheep welfare don’t knit together

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  • RSPCA Australia
  • Wednesday, 3 January 2024

The Australian wool industry is continuing to fail in their duty of care to Aussie sheep, despite ongoing claims to the contrary.

Australia is now the last country in the world that continues the painful practice of mulesing on wool-growing sheep.

And while the use of pain relief has grown among producers, in no way is it an adequate solution to the many welfare issues caused by mulesing.

Australia is a leading exporter in the global wool industry, and yet we are woefully behind our fellow wool growing nations with some of our welfare standards and farming practices.

So, it’s time the industry stopped trying to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes and started getting real about where we are and what needs to change.

Clinging to the dark ages

The peak national body for wool growers, Wool Producers Australia (WPA), states in their policy document that they will only support a phase out of mulesing “when there is a universally accepted alternative,” meaning only once ALL stakeholders unanimously agree on a set alternative. This shows a willingness to stick to a painful and outdated practice that other wool-growing nations abandoned years ago, demonstrating a disappointing lack of leadership on animal welfare.

The wool industry has spent decades and countless dollars on researching quick-fix alternatives to mulesing, when a viable and effective solution already exists - breeding flystrike-resistant sheep. It’s a solution that would take less time to implement (transitioning flocks generally takes a few years) than the many years spent on researching alternatives that fail to mitigate the distress, pain and prolonged suffering sheep endure with this practice.

Dragging their feet

Concerned for their international reputation as awareness regarding mulesing grew, in 2004 the Australian wool industry set a deadline to phase out mulesing of six years. But disappointingly in 2009, one year shy of the deadline, the commitment was abandoned, with industry leaders claiming the alternatives to mulesing were not sufficiently developed. Since then, the industry has failed to progress in a meaningful way towards a phase out of mulesing, even with a viable alternative available.

Sheep welfare and international reputation at risk

Far from the stereotype, sheep are complex, curious, and gentle animals whose welfare is often not prioritised by the industries that rely on them. It’s estimated that more than 10 million lambs are mulesed annually, and most without pain relief until after the procedure is completed. Even with pain relief, there is strong evidence that mulesing is painful and stressful for lambs - they can become quieter, play less, and spend long periods standing hunched in response to the pain of mulesing, and the resulting wound can take weeks to heal. Lambs have also been known to avoid humans following the procedure, in particular the person that mulesed them.

Thankfully, consumer awareness is growing and upon learning about what mulesing involves, many are actively seeking mulesing-free wool or avoiding wool completely. Many major international brands are also taking a progressive stance, with 400 brands committed to sourcing non-mulesed wool for their products.

With consumer demand and influential international stakeholders now boycotting mulesed wool, the Australian wool industry is dangerously close to losing its social license and the trust of the community. As the last country in the world refusing to commit to a mulesing-free future, the Australian wool industry is showing us that it is outdated and slow to progress.

Using pain relief should only be an interim measure to improve sheep welfare, not the solution. Generally, pain relief is only administered after mulesing surgery, and does not adequately mitigate the trauma, distress and ongoing pain and discomfort from this procedure which takes weeks to heal. It is simply unacceptable that almost twenty years on from the last proposed phase out, that we are only marginally closer towards ending the practice and producers are still continuing to breed sheep that require mulesing to prevent flystrike. Breeding sheep with minimal skin wrinkle is the most animal-friendly and sustainable way to manage flystrike and is a solution that is available to all producers now. A mulesing-free future is the only acceptable way forward for Australia’s wool industry and the sheep they rely on.

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