Despite their gentle nature and capacity to suffer as any other animal, sheep aren't protected by the same laws as dogs and cats. 'Codes of Practice' side-step the rules, allowing farmers to cut bits and pieces off young lambs without even providing them pain relief.
Like puppies, lambs are born with a long tail. But most lambs are put in a restraint device and have their tail cut off (like tail docking: to reduce soiling and the risk of flystrike). When lambs are less than 6 months old, this practice can be done without anything to dull the pain. Often (as in the video below) lambs are also mulesed at the same time.
A hot blade or sharp knife is used to cut through the muscle and bone of the lamb's tail. On some farms, lambs will instead have a rubber ring tightened around their tail so that it will wither and drop off.
If a lamb's tail is cut too short, they are at higher risk of suffering from serious health complications, such as rectal prolapse.
Young lambs often have the skin around their buttocks and the base of their tail cut off with a pair of metal shears (to reduce soiling and the risk of flystrike). This controversial practice, called mulesing, can be done without any pain relief.
The large, open wound created by mulesing can take many weeks to heal. During this time, lambs are at added risk of infection and flystrike.
While mulesing is inflicted on lambs to reduce flystrike, several other less invasive and much less painful solutions exist. In 2010, the leaders of the Australian wool industry backed down on a commitment to phase out mulesing in favour of more humane alternatives. Sadly, nearly 10 million lambs still endure this procedure each year in Australia. Only half (just under 5 million lambs) are even treated with short term pain relief.
Male lambs usually have to endure both castration and tail docking (and sometimes mulesing) at the same time. When these procedures are carried out by unskilled people, the risk of greater injury, and infection is even more significant.
Shearing is not only stressful for sheep who are inherently fearful of human handling but rough treatment in the shearing shed also puts them at risk of injury. Sheep are often cut by the sharp shearing blades, and when they suffer larger wounds, it is considered acceptable industry practice to stitch them up without providing any pain relief. As with those who carry out other painful, invasive procedures, there is currently no requirement for shearers to undergo formal training and accreditation.
Invasive breeding procedures
Female sheep are also often forced to endure invasive procedures. In one common breeding procedure, called laparoscopic artificial insemination, a long metal rod is poked through the ewe's abdomen to insert semen into her uterus. This invasive procedure can be done without pain relief.
You can help!
Call for an end to live export: The grim fate for many sheep in Australia is to be loaded onto ships in the live export trade. Exported to countries with no laws to protect them, these animals can suffer unspeakable abuses — including having their throats cut whilst fully conscious. Click here to urge your MP to support a ban on live animal exports.
Make your choices count: Caught in a profit driven industry, sheep are forced to endure these painful procedures because of demand for lamb, mutton and wool. But fortunately, the choices we make at the dinner table (and when buying clothes) can spare them. By making the choice to eat more meat-free meals, or take animals off your plate completely, you can help protect sheep and save lives. Check out our guide to cruelty-free living to find out more about how your every-day choices can a kinder world for sheep.