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The issue

Mulesing has been a routine surgical procedure in sheep farming and wool production for nearly 100 years.

Flystrike is when blowflies lay their eggs in the folds of skin around the tail area of the sheep, the eggs then hatch into larvae, and then feed off the flesh of the sheep, 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 breech and tail to create an area of bare, scarred skin, which is less likely to attract blowflies. Until recently, this procedure was carried out without any pain relief.

Recently, another method used to address flystrike has emerged, called ‘sheep freeze branding’ or ‘steining’. The procedure uses a device that tightly clamps excess skin on the lamb’s breech and then applies liquid nitrogen to this clamped skin until it is fully frozen. The clamp is then removed and the treated skin eventually falls off.

Whilst flystrike does present a serious animal welfare concern, mulesing and sheep freeze branding both cause pain and stress to sheep. 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 apply anaesthetic or pain relief during or after the procedure.

What needs to change

While many producers do use pain relief following mulesing, this does not make the procedure painless and is not a long-term solution to the risk, suffering and stress caused.

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

The RSPCA believes that the wool industry must invest in longterm, sustainable solutions to address flystrike, which eliminate the need for procedures like mulesing and sheep freeze branding.

This means transitioning flocks to breeds of sheep that are naturally resistant to flystrike. Sheep breeds that have less wrinkles are less susceptible to flystrike, and can still produce the same wool yield.

For as long as mulesing continues, 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 mandatory for all wool producers.