The mulesing of sheep continues to be common practice in Australia, but alternative solutions are becoming increasingly popular. We visited a mulesing-free sheep farm.
Merino sheep have large folds of skin and these provide a breeding ground for fly larvae in Australia’s warm climate. Flystrike results in extensive and painful damage to the sheep’s backside and, in many cases, can lead to death. The traditional solution has been mulesing, a practice that involves cutting away the skin on the sheep’s backside. Once healed, the smooth skin grows without any wool or folds. But this practice is extremely painful and stressful for the sheep and many are treated without any form of anaesthetic. It is possible to anesthetise the sheep during the procedure itself, but the anaesthetic only works for 12 hours and the open wound is painful for up to two weeks. Mulesing is therefore met with considerable protest among consumers, manufacturers and animal welfare organisations.
“Unfortunately, mulesing is currently the most effective means to protect sheep from flystrike. Anyone who has seen sheep die from flystrike understands that this is far worse torture than mulesing. Alternative methods reduce the animal’s suffering, but are not as effective against flystrike. But I’m from a newer generation. If we were to start practicing mulesing, I would find it extremely unpleasant. We need to find a better way to deal with this,” says Hamish Henderson.
Hamish Henderson with sheepdogs Jenny and Faith.
Hamish is a 4st generation sheep farmer and runs the family farm Middlebrook Station northwest of Sydney. The farm has around 3000 sheep, a small farm by Australian standards. All the same, the farm is large enough that Hamish has to use his own light aircraft to keep track of his sheep and their location.
Young sheep at pasture.
Hamish and his family stopped mulesing for reasons of animal welfare. The Henderson family now runs a100 % mulesing-free farm and has also introduced a number of other measures to increase animal welfare. These include a specially designed enclosure for guiding the sheep gradually into the vaccination and shearing area. The enclosure is designed to minimise stress to the animals.
Breeding is the solution
“I’m an early adopter or innovator. I’m actually a helicopter pilot, but moved back here with my wife and our four children seven years ago. Since I’ve done all kinds of different work, I’m not stuck with traditional farming methods. If there’s a better way to do things, why not use it? I’m not here to hurt the animals,” says Hamish.
The Henderson family buys lambs from a breeder who breeds ewes with a smoother backside, i.e. with smaller and fewer skin folds.
“It’s really the only way to avoid this problem. You need to breed merino sheep with fewer folds since it’s in the folds where the infestation occurs. Having fewer folds does not affect the quality of the wool,” says Hamish.
It’s also important to keep the backside of the sheep close-cropped, making it easier to keep clean. Ewes are sheared before they lamb in May and June. They don’t need to be sheared again until all the sheep are sheared in November.
“There are also good treatments that can be used when shearing. The one we use gives us 20 weeks of protection against flystrike during the Australian summer months of November, December, January, February and March. We’ve also been fortunate these past years with dry summers. A dry summer increases the risk of drought and poor pasture growth, but also means fewer fly larvae and less risk of flystrike,” explains Hamish.
The neighbouring farm to Middlebrook Station is also a sheep farm. The sheep there have scars on their backsides and Hamish says that the owners are still mulesing. It’s easy to see whether sheep are mulesed or not, making it difficult to cheat on the certification requirements. Inspectors come to the farm when the sheep are sheared and, when selling the wool, you need to sign a self-declaration stating that you have not mulesed the sheep.
“You don’t get paid extra for mulesing-free wool, but it is important for both ethical reasons and to keep up with global requirements for wool production. Things aren’t going to change overnight, but change is happening,” says Hamish.
Special enclosures that minimise stress to the animals.
Healthy sheep mean good quality wool.