What is mulesing?

Sheep, especially Merinos, have woolly wrinkles and folds in their skin, particularly around the tail and breech area (back and top of hind legs under tail), which can become moist with urine and contaminated with faeces. Blowflies are attracted to this moist area where they lay eggs that generally hatch into larvae (maggots) within 12-24 hours and feed off the flesh of the sheep for up to 3 days. This is called flystrike, which, if left untreated, is fatal.

Mulesing is a painful procedure that involves cutting crescent-shaped flaps of skin from around a lamb’s breech and tail using sharp shears designed specifically for this purpose. The resulting wound, when healed, creates an area of bare, stretched scar tissue. Because the scarred skin has no folds or wrinkles to hold moisture and faeces, it is less likely to attract blowflies. This makes mulesed sheep less susceptible to flystrike in the breech area.

Why is it a welfare issue?

Mulesing is performed without anaesthesia, and pain relief is not always used. The operation is quick; however, the acute pain is long lasting – at least up to 48 hours or from several days to several weeks. The resulting wound bed takes 5-7 weeks to completely heal. Mulesed lambs will socialise less, lose weight in the first two weeks post-mulesing, and exhibit behaviours that indicate they’re in pain.

Around five – 20 million sheep are mulesed annually, around 20 per cent without any pain relief.

What’s the solution?

The RSPCA believes that it is unacceptable to continue to breed sheep that are susceptible to flystrike and therefore require an ongoing need for mulesing or other painful procedures to manage flystrike risk. You can read more about The RSPCA’s view on mulesing and flystrike prevention in sheep here.