Ultra Fine Wool

Why Australians can't let this industry grow...

It is legal in Australia to factory farm sheep in a manner that would shock the vast majority of Australians. To produce 'ultra-fine' wool, some growers have kept thousands of sheep in tiny individual pens to supply an elite international market and wealthy buyers from the world's foremost fashion houses.

Ultra-fine wool growing is an intensive animal industry. Specially bred sheep are kept indoors in individual small pens 24 hours a day for 5 or more years. Nylon coats are worn by the ‘shedded’ sheep to further ensure that dust and dirt does not enter their fleece, and—like every other factory farming industry—the behavioural and social needs of the sheep, intrinsic factors which provide quality of life, are completely ignored. Some indoor ‘ultra fine’ facilities house the sheep in groups. But sheep are not designed to be kept indoors and should be grazing most of the day with their flock.

An important figure in Australia's wool industry is leading Italian fashion house, Ermenegildo Zegna. The prestige of winning an Ermenegildo Zegna award is much sought after in wool industry circles. The Vellus Aureum Trophy is awarded by Count Paulo Zegna each year for the ‘golden fleece’—the finest micron fleece.

Animals Australia Executive Director Glenys Oogjes and Campaign Director Lyn White were ‘introduced’ to the sheep that grew the 2004 ‘golden fleece’ during a tour of 'The Wool Factory', in Victoria. However, this award-winning sheep had little to celebrate.

The impacts of chronic stress caused by an inappropriate environment were obvious. The confined sheep continually chewed on the wooden slats and strands of wire which enclosed them. Repetitive body movements were also observed—classic stereotypic behaviours caused by a barren environment, combined with the inability to exercise, or to perform simple natural behaviours such as graze on grass.

Shedded sheep chew on wire out of chronic stress

Sheep suffered chronic stress as a result of their inappropriate environment, causing them to continually chew on the wooden slats and strands of wire which enclose them.

Findings from a 2009 scientific study at The Wool Factory were in line with the evidence from our 2004 investigation. The study found that the majority of observed sheep displayed behaviours commonly perceived as ‘stereotypies’, abnormal behaviours such as head butting or nosing and chewing pen fixtures, pacing and pawing.

New footage from 2011 confirmed that conditions for animals at The Wool Factory had not improved since our 2004 investigation.

Possibly the biggest motivator for the single pens is to control feed intake. Sheep used to produce ultra fine wool are fed considerably less than their outdoor counterparts. This is because sheep with a lower body condition (ie. underweight) produce finer fleece. It's highly probable that on top of all the other cruelties inflicted on them these sheep are also kept in a constant state of hunger.

Suggestions that these animals are 'better off' living in such confinement—as they are sheltered and have a daily food source—is a desperate defence from those who know they are denying these animals every behavioural need that provides any enrichment in their lives, on the basis of profit.

Sheep chewing on woodThere appears little doubt that the welfare issues witnessed at ‘The Wool Factory’ would be replicated at other private ‘ultra-fine’ facilities, where sheep are also individually penned.

The sheep Code of Practice states that animals that are unable to adapt to the indoor confinement should be returned to grazing. Clearly from the evidence gathered at The Wool Factory, this did not occur. If operators do not comply with the Code of Practice they could be prosecuted for cruelty under state animal welfare laws. Unfortunately, proving cruelty is difficult and expensive, and to date this practice has not been challenged in the courts.

Campaign Success

Animals Australia's campaign against single penned sheep in 2009 resulted in Ermenegildo Zegna deciding that wool sourced from sheep kept in single pens is no longer eligible for their award. In 2010 our campaign had another success when the largest buyer of ultra fine wool, Italian designer Loro Piana, did not only decide to ban fleece from single penned sheep from their Wool World Record Challenge Cup awards, but announced they will also no longer purchase wool produced under such cruel conditions. These important developments impact negatively on the viability of facilities keeping single penned sheep while positively impacting the animals' welfare.

In December 2011, The Wool Factory announced publicly that ultra-fine wool was no longer viable and so they would be ceasing their wool production and selling all their sheep by June 2012 to develop an eWaste business instead. As of April 2013, there are no known single pen shed sheep operations left in Australia. While this is positive news, the practice is not yet outlawed and sheep could be made to suffer in this way again if an operator decides it is economically viable.

What you can do:

Click here to take part in our campaign calling on the Victorian Government to ban this cruel practice for good.

Click here to send an instant campaign letter to Ermenegildo Zegna, urging them to commit to never again supporting the cruel ultra-fine wool industry.

Post a letter to Ermenegildo Zegna—asking them to make a commitment to never purchase wool from facilities that keep sheep in single pens.

Head Office - Showroom:
Level 7, 140 Williams Street
East Sydney NSW 2011

Ermenegildo Zegna Boutique:
Melbourne: 161 Collins Street, Melbourne VIC 3000
Sydney: MLC Centre LO7, 7.01A, 19 Martin Place, Sydney NSW 2000

The ultra fine wool industry locks sheep inside sheds for up to 5 years. Like any intensive animal industry, the behavioural and social needs of the sheep, intrinsic factors which provide quality of life, are completely ignored.

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