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Episode S3E3
Mulesing – the welfare issue we need to be talking about

Mulesing – the welfare issue we need to be talking about. With Melina Tensen.
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  • RSPCA Australia
  • Friday, 1 December 2023
In this episode, we join RSPCA Australia Senior Scientific Officer Melina Tensen to get the facts about mulesing.


Melina: For the wool industry to be sustainable, moving away from mulesing and breeding flystrike-resistant sheep is imperative.

Brian: Hello, and welcome to RSPCA Australia's Great and Small Talk, where we discuss the pressing welfare issues animals face in Australia today. My name is Brian Daly, and today we're talking about a farming practice called mulesing that affects millions of sheep in Australia each year. And to explain to us what mulesing is, how it impacts the welfare of sheep, what can be done, and what we can all do to help, I'm joined by Melina Tensen, Senior Scientific Officer Farm Animals at RSPCA Australia. Welcome back to the podcast, Melina.

Melina: Hi Brian, thanks for having me.

Brian: Now Melina, I remember visiting a friend's sheep station in Walgett when I was a kid, and I saw the mulesing being carried out on the lambs there, and it was a harrowing experience that stayed with me. I have a vivid memory of blood and tears. And that was decades ago and it's still being carried out. So firstly, can you explain to us what mulesing is, why it is done, and how it impacts the welfare of these animals?

Melina: Yeah, I can imagine you would have been pretty traumatized by that experience, because mulesing really isn't a pretty sight. So yeah, what is mulesing? Well, first of all, maybe picture a traditional Merino ram standing proud with large curled horns and huge wrinkly folds of woolly skin around their neck. It's a pretty iconic image of an Australian Merino sheep and, and they were and continue to be bred to have lots and lots of wrinkles. So basically, that means more skin surface and more wool on the animal. And these same sheep, because they have so much wrinkle are also prone to flystrike. So what's flystrike, and I'll get to mulesing in a minute. The wooly wrinkles and folds of skin, particularly around the tail and the backside or the breach area of the sheep are prone to becoming moist with urine and feces. And this then attracts blowflies to that area. These blowflies lay eggs in the skinfolds, and when these eggs hatch, the maggots literally feed off the sheep's flesh. And this is called flystrike. And flystrike is actually fatal if it's not discovered early enough, and if it's not treated. So now we come to mulesing, because mulesing and flystrike are obviously related, and mulesing was actually discovered by accident. I think it was around the 1930s, or early 1900s, when a guy called John Mules accidentally sliced off a bit of skin when shearing around one of his sheep's backsides. And what he found was that when the wound healed, the scar tissue that was left there didn't get soiled with the urine and feces. So it didn't attract blowflies, so it wasn't susceptible to flystrike. So the whole point of mulesing as it was called from then onwards, is really to remove those wrinkly skin folds around the back of the sheep, and again, those skin folds or those wrinkly skin folds are really common in the traditional Merino, which I described earlier. So mulesing itself, the procedure itself uses very sharp shears, which are designed specifically for the purpose of mulesing, and these shears simply cut away flaps of skin around the tail, and the top of the upper hind legs of the sheep, and this is called the breech area. And the open wound is then left to heal on its own. And as I mentioned earlier, that wound then creates a bare, stretched area of of scar tissue that is less likely to hold moisture because it's stretched, it doesn't have the wrinkle. And so it's less likely to attract blowflies. But mulesing really only removes those skinfolds from around the breech area of the lamb, which obviously is the most susceptible to flystrike because that's where the urine and feces obviously accumulate. But it doesn't really reduce the risk of blowfly strike in any other area of the animal so it doesn't reduce the risk of flystrike on the body, for example, where the wrinkles will remain. So the mulesing procedure itself is pretty quick, but it is extremely painful. So when you're talking about, or asking about what the impact is on the lamb, the pain can last anywhere from a few days to several weeks, and the wound itself takes weeks to heal completely before you have that stretched scar tissue. And the young lamb will obviously show behavioral signs of pain like hunched standing or spending more time standing rather than lying down because that whole back area is uncomfortable. They'll certainly socialize a lot less with other lambs, and initially, they'll lose weight, which is a key indicator of pain. If an animal's not eating, there's obviously something wrong with them. But mulesing is quick, and it's very effective in reducing the risk of flystrike, and so therefore, it's very popular among woolgrowers in Australia, and therefore it's literally persisted for, you know, nearly 100 years now, despite all these impacts on the lamb.

Brian: And how old are the lambs when this is done?

Melina: So the age varies, but recommendations are to do it between two to eight weeks of age, but it could be up to 12 weeks of age.

Brian: It sounds really painful, and it's only for sheep that are farmed for wool?

Melina: Mainly for non-Merino lamb, so Merinos are the sheep that are farmed for wool. There's interesting stats from the Australian wool exchange, so the auction where the wool is sold, and the latest stats show that around 19% of wool is from sheep that haven't been mulesed, so wool producers declare their mulesing status or can declare their mulesing status when they present their wool for auction, but not all wool growers do, so this figure might be a little bit higher. But even so, 19% of wool being non-mulesed, it really indicates that there's a long way to go before we have a non-mulesed flock here in Australia. In terms of other sheep in the sheep meat sector, so sheep that are raised for meat rather than for wool, mulesing also occurs. However, it's not the lambs that are produced for meat. In other words, the lamb that we eat that are subjected to mulesing, it's more likely to be the grandmothers or their mothers. So there's a bit of crossbreeding that happens in the sheep meat sector where Merino ewes are crossed with a wool meat breed and then that progeny is crossed again with a meat breed and that eventually gives you the the meat lamb that we eat or the prime lamb as it's sometimes called. But those those mothers and those grandmothers, because they are either Merinos or cross Merinos are likely to be mulesed. But anything that's not Merino generally doesn't get mulesed. And in terms of the Merinos it's usually the superfine and fine wool Merinos that are almost exclusively used for wool production that are mulesed.

Brian: So flystrike is obviously the big issue that this is addressing. But for the welfare of the animal, are there other solutions available?

Melina: There is, there is, and there has been for a long time. But it does require concerted effort to breed the wrinkle out of those wrinkly sheep. And this can be done while maintaining fleece weight. So I mentioned earlier that all the wrinkles means more skin, which has more wool on it, so you can get more wool. And the fear has always been that if you remove that wrinkle or that excess skin, you also lose fleece weight or the amount of wool that you get off that animal when you shear it. But that's not necessarily the case. So you can maintain fleece weight and you can maintain wool quality. So breeding these flystrike-resistant sheep is really the way forward. But of course, managing flystrike is not just about breeding. It also requires proactive management to prevent flystrike. But also control measures being in place to, for example, monitor blowfly activity around the farm, making sure that you're crutching in other words, removing wool from the backside of the animal and shearing at the right time so that lambs and sheep are shawn in preparation for periods of high blowfly activity. So when the weather is warm, and then possibly followed by rain, that sort of hot humid conditions are ideal for flies, but also controlling worms and so called "dags", which are basically the feces that cling to the wool at the back of the animal. And also if you're tail docking sheep which is also common in the sheep industry, making sure that that tail is left long enough to protect the sensitive areas there from the sun but also not to damage the tail muscle because a tail muscle is really important in expelling the feces out and away from the wool. So those are, I guess, sort of more active and ongoing control measures to prevent and control flystrike, while obviously people are breeding those flystrike-resistant animals.

Brian: And how long will the breeding of the flystrike-resistant animals take?

Melina: Well, there are already breeds that are wrinkle-free, plainer-bodied Merinos that have good quality and sufficient quantity of wool. But there are also Merino strains that are very wrinkly, and may require a longer period of selecting lower-wrinkle animals that have all the other traits that the farmer is looking for. And then, you know, we could be looking at a period of five years, probably longer ...

Brian: ... for the breeding, and then you've still got the high-maintenance to keep the flies away and all that sort of ...

Melina: That's right. It's not easy being a farmer. (laughs)

Brian: No, and that's obviously why the mulesing is chosen as the, as the way to deal with it is, as you said, it's very quick. And it's and it is reasonably effective. But what about pain relief? Is it common uncommon for farmers to use any pain relief? And if it's not used, then then why wouldn't it be?

Melina: Well, there's ... let's just say that there's no anesthetic that numbs the breech area before those sharp shears come into action. It's not like, you know, when we go and have a skin cancer or something removed, we get a nice little local anesthetic. There's nothing like that available. However, there are other pain relief options available. They don't take away that acute pain of the procedure itself, but they do help provide pain relief immediately after. And again, looking at those wool auction statistics where the mulesing status accompanies the baled wool that's being sold, around 40% of wool growers declare that they're using pain relief when they're mulesing. So that's the auction stats. But a recent industry survey found this rate to be much higher, probably around, I think it's around 90%, of wool growers. So the vast majority actually of wool growers state that they use pain relief during mulesing. And most of this is using a spray-on gel that goes, it acts as an anesthetic as well as an analgesic or a longer lasting pain relief. But it's sprayed on the wound after the animal has been mulesed. This same industry survey actually also found that only 8% of producers are using what's currently considered best practice pain relief. And that would be using that spray-on gel in combination with a longer lasting non-steroidal anti inflammatory drug, which is basically like a Nurofen. So a Nurofen acts to to numb the pain as soon as there's pain detected in the body, and it lasts for a number of hours. And so yeah, that's that's best practice. So yeah, is it common is your question? Well, according to industry surveys, it does appear to be common, but what we're seeing is that that uptake of the best practice method is urgently needed so that the animal gets the best possible pain relief that's available to farmers at the moment. And of course, we see mulesing plus pain relief as only an interim solution, while woolgrowers are selecting and breeding those sheep that are flystrike-resistant and don't need to be mulesed at all.

Brian: So given these stats, how close do you think we are to seeing an end to this practice? How achievable is it?

Melina: Well, we've been campaigning and urging the wool industry to phase out mulesing for a very long time. But the wool industry itself have known for a very long time that mulesing is a controversial practice, that it's painful for sheep and indeed risks their social licence. And recent polling by the RSPCA shows that one in two people are concerned about the mulesing of lambs. So really, for the for the wool industry to be sustainable, moving away from mulesing and breeding flystrike-resistant sheep is, is imperative. I mean, it's really important that they do that. And as mentioned earlier, it does require that concerted effort and that dedication to breeding sheep that are plainer-bodied and less attractive to the blowfly that causes the problem in the first place. And some Merino strains are naturally plainer-bodied, while other strains require more focus on targeting genetics that are going to reduce the wrinkle over time. So for different producers that it will entail different effort and different timeframes. But really, the point is that wool growers need to be confident to manage flystrike without mulesing, and that's a key aim of industry to ensure that wool growers do have that confidence to manage flystrike in ways other than resorting to mulesing. And of course, those flystrike control practices that I mentioned earlier need really need to be in place during that transition.

Brian: And how are the RSPCA helping the industry move away from it?

Melina: We've engaged and continue to engage with the wool and sheep meat industry representatives to highlight our concerns with mulesing and other animal practices within those sectors, but particularly with regard to mulesing and the need to phase it out. Industry research effort is focused on reducing that reliance on mulesing by looking at breeding and selection of flystrike-resistant sheep, but also education and awareness programs and workshops, specifically targeted at wool growers who want to know how to better manage flystrike and indeed, who are keen to move to a non-mulesed flock. However, we feel that, you know, the clear message that mulesing cannot go on indefinitely. Even if producers are using pain relief, that doesn't seem to be getting through fast enough. And we wish it would. We've also contributed to the development of the sheep sustainability framework, they have an animal care pillar, which will report on the extent to which mulesing still occurs in the Australian flock, as well as the use of pain relief, among other things. And we're working with animal welfare groups to raise public awareness about the animal welfare impact of mulesing and, of course, we're also working at government level to try and see if we can affect change through legislation or regulation. But our expectation really is to see a significant decline in the number of sheep being mulesed over time. And of course, the quicker this happens, the better.

Brian: And what can consumers do to help the situation you've mentioned there's, you know, about 20% of, or 19-20% is marked as non-mulesed wool, is that what we should be looking for?

Melina: Yeah, well, like any other product we buy, particularly with animal products, consumers really have that power to change things for the better. So if you're, if you'd like that warm, woolly jumper, I'm wearing one right now, if you like a tailor made suit from high quality wool, or you sleep under that cozy woolen doona in winter, then really what you can do to help fast track that move away from mulesing is to seek out products from non-mulesed wool, and ask the retailer that you want non-mulesed wool. And, as with anything, strong consumer demand for, for that non-mulesed wool is going to encourage more woolgrowers to move away from mulesing to meet that demand. And that's likely to be the quickest way that will see an end to this barbaric practice.

Brian: I actually read the other day, coincidentally, of a farmer in Walgett that's moved away completely from the Merino industry. And, and he's now into the meat industry, because it just became too difficult to sustain the practice, as you said the social licence just wasn't there that so obviously, it's an issue that that farmers are looking at. So if the consumers demanding that we get non-mulesed wool, then there's a market for it there.

Melina: That's right.

Brian: And thanks very much, Melina for giving us the update on where we're up to in eliminating this, this practice of mulesing. Let's hope the industry can move away from this quickly so that these sheep no longer suffer.

Melina: Thanks for having me, Brian.

Brian: We've been talking today with Melina Tensen, Senior Scientific Officer Farm Animals at RSPCA Australia, and thank you for listening. If you'd like any more information on mulesing, visit the RSPCA Australia website at rspca.org.au. You can also subscribe to the podcast series at the same website, or all the usual podcast suspects. I'm Brian Daly, and I look forward to your company next time on RSPCA Australia's Great and Small Talk.

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