Flystrike is a major problem for sheep in the Australian wool industry. When a strike occurs, blowfly eggs laid on the skin of the sheep hatch into larvae, which feed on the sheep’s tissue. Flystrike can produce inflammation, general systemic toxaemia, and even death.
It is estimated that around 3 million sheep a year die as a result of flystrike in Australia (Wardhaugh and Morton, 1990). Many more are affected by non-fatal strikes.
Very careful husbandry can protect sheep from flystrike without surgery (i.e. regular surveillance, crutching, insecticides etc). Unfortunately, given the large numbers run over extensive areas in Australia, and with very low labour levels, sheep do not receive this sort of care and attention.
In an attempt to reduce the incidence of flystrike in Australia, the ‘Mules’ operation was introduced in the 1930s. Skin is sliced from the buttocks of lambs without anaesthetic to produce a scar free of wool, faecal/urine stains, and skin wrinkles. Over 20 million merino breed lambs are currently mulesed each year. Most will have their tail cut off and the males will be castrated (‘marked’) at the same time.
Mulesing involves cutting a crescent-shaped slice of skin from each side of the buttock area; the usual cut on each side is 5 - 7cm in width and extends slightly less than half way from the anus to the hock of the back leg in length. Skin is also stripped from the sides and the end of the tail stump. This surgical procedure is usually done without any anaesthetic1.
Mulesing does reduce (but does not eliminate) the incidence of breech strike, that is, flystrike around the buttocks. Mulesing has no effect on the incidence of flystrike on parts of the body other than the buttocks.
There is also no doubt that mulesing is extremely painful. In addition to the scientific measurement of highly elevate cortisol levels in mulesed lambs, researchers have also measured behavioural indicators. When mulesed sheep were first released into a paddock they grazed and moved freely at first, suggesting some temporary pain relief from the endorphins. Soon, however, they showed abnormal behaviour which persisted to some degree for 72 hours and was described by Fell and Shutt (1989, p.2872) as follows: “Characteristically they stood with head down, nose almost touching the ground, back arched and body hunched and, maintaining this posture, they made sudden brief runs with a short, mincing gait quite unlike the steady walking of the controls.”
The mulesed lambs also showed strong avoidance of the person who mulesed them for 37 days. The work done by these researchers shows that lambs are in pain for at least 3 days following mulesing. The large scars left after mulesing take several weeks to heal and are susceptible to infection and flystrike.
In 2004 the Australian wool industry, concerned by the threat to their international wool markets due to revelations about the prevalence of this mutilation to lambs, and newly challenged by international animal rights group PETA, set itself a deadline of 2010 to phase out the practice.
Since 2004 industry and government funding has been significantly increased to find alternate methods to reduce flystrike incidence (other than via mulesing). Several methods are being trialled including the application of clips which stretch the skin and ultimately atrophy and thus remove the excess wrinkled skin, chemical compounds injected beneath the skin of the buttocks to have the excess wrinkles slough off, and projects to select and breed sheep with bare (wool-less) breach areas.
In the interim (until 2010) a new ‘appendix’ to the Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals – the Sheep, was introduced in 2006. It provides further guidance on the best mulesing method, but is a voluntary code. Because mulesing is described in this code and is thus considered an ‘acceptable husbandry’ practice, it is therefore exempt from the cruelty provisions of animal welfare laws.
Mulesing contractors – who go onto farms to mules (tail dock and castrate) lambs – are now required to be ‘accredited’ and new training courses have been introduced in the last two years. Farmers who mules their own lambs need not be trained and accredited until the end of 2008.
In March 2008 the NSW Farmers Association called for an immediate ban on mulesing in order to stave off threatened boycotts of Australian wool by up to 60 foreign (mostly European) retailers following further negative publicity in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries.
On the same day the Western Australian Department of Agriculture announced that it would end mulesing of lambs on its research stations forthwith.
The most powerful message each of us can send to the wool industry is that caring consumers and community members will not support animal cruelty. If you choose to buy wool products, enquire of the retailer whether the wool is ethically sourced (from sheep that are not mulesed—as a minimum!).
Show Australia's decision makers that the Australian public is appalled by the Australian wool industry's cruel treatment of animals. Use the following key points to compose a letter to the editor of your local paper: