20 October, 2020

In a world where marketing seems to dominate what we buy and the quality of product that consumers demand of producers, the future of wool from mulesed sheep is an interesting exercise in predicting the future.

As consumer purchasing patterns have changed over the years to move towards more animal welfare-friendly fashion, farmers’ attitudes towards mulesing have also changed, with many exploring alternatives to mulesing to ensure a viable market for their product. And yet, despite assurances made by the wool industry in the early 2000s to phase out mulesing, it still exists.  

Many farmers support mulesing because it is effective even though it is so unpleasant for the lambs and the farmer. To stomach it now, farmers must believe strongly in their gut that mulesing is necessary. Dealing with flystrike is also intensely unpleasant, so that reinforces the depth of the belief that mulesing is worthwhile on balance. But can the consumer be convinced of that?

One way to look at any animal welfare issue, a ‘pub test’ if you like, is along these lines:

If flystrike appeared for the first time today and someone suggested slicing some skin off a lamb’s backside and tail was the only way to fix the problem, would that be seen as acceptable in today’s society? 

Most farmers would agree with their customers that, knowing what we know today, mulesing wouldn’t pass the pub test, no matter how effective it is. The argument that mulesing works and farmers can’t check sheep often enough to deal with flystrike, just doesn’t hold water with today’s consumers. It just so happens that all the good animal welfare science agrees with the pub test on mulesing. Much better alternatives are available.

The current moves away from mulesing now largely concentrate on transitioning to plain-bodied sheep (which don’t need mulesing), and implementing more targeted flystrike prevention strategies. A recent study done by BG Economics has indicated that farmers who have moved away from mulesing have not only found it easier, but it’s more financially rewarding than most of them expected.  

This is very important news, considering many mainstream fashion companies like Country Road and Myer are now buying non-mulesed wool or are planning to phase out mulesed wool in the near future. Woolmark’s Head of America’s, Michelle Lee, recently stated that fashion buyers from Gap and Lululemon were brought from the US to Australia to see for themselves how mulesing and the use of post-procedure pain-killers and research into preventing flystrike were addressing “… the whole animal welfare issue.” Regardless of what they learnt or how they feel about it, it will ultimately be their consumers who need to accept this compromise in animal welfare.

The implementation of mandatory pain relief for mulesed lambs will significantly decrease the pain felt after the strips of skin are removed from the lamb’s rear. This pain relief has been mandated in Victoria and is being debated in NSW. However, post-procedure pain relief does not stop the intense pain when the skin is initially cut, which will remain. 

This is why the transition to plain-bodied sheep and better flystrike management is the most publicly acceptable long-term solution to the mulesing problem.