Did you know that Australia is the biggest producer of wool used for clothing worldwide? It’s also home to a huge population of over 74 million sheep.

Sadly, sheep in Australia are prone to a painful, and often fatal condition called ‘flystrike’. A major cause of flystrike is due to much of the Australian Merino industry’s use and preference of ‘wrinkled sheep’ types, essentially a sheep with excess skin.

Why do producers prefer wrinkled sheep? Because it’s thought that a sheep with more wrinkles (skin folds), produces a higher volume of wool. Wrinkled sheep can be covered in skin folds across their bodies, including around their hindquarters (buttocks). The hindquarters of a sheep with wrinkled skin is especially prone to retaining moisture, urine, and faeces, the perfect conditions for fly larvae to grow and feed on the sheep’s skin and flesh.

A mulesed lamb | © Image: ABC Rural | Anthony Pancia

What is mulesing?

To make sheep less susceptible to flystrike, the mutilation practice of ‘mulesing’ was developed. Mulesing is the process of restraining lambs, usually 6-12 weeks old, on their backs in a metal cradle and using shears, similar to garden shears, while large skin folds are cut away from around their buttocks. Mulesing is currently performed on approximately 70% of Merino wool-producing sheep in Australia.1Managing non-mulesed sheep, WA Department of Agriculture. https://www.agric.wa.gov.au/livestock-parasites/managing-non-mulesed-sheep

Due to the suffering caused by this procedure, mulesing has been banned in New Zealand, however, it can still be legally performed in Australia, and without adequate pain relief.

Due to consumer concern, the Australian wool industry committed to phasing out mulesing by 2010. Unfortunately, this commitment was abandoned in 2009, and millions of lambs continue to be mulesed across Australia every year. With a lack of industry leadership to enable change, it’s now up to consumers and brands to demand an end to mulesing. 

What are the alternatives?

The good news is that viable alternatives to mulesing and flystrike prevention do exist, alternatives which have been used by well over a thousand Australian producers. These include:

  • The use of flystrike resistant sheep types – e.g. bare breeched and plain bodied sheep with no skin wrinkles (read more on this here),
  • Enhanced overall farming practices, for example, increased monitoring and crutching (the shearing of wool from around the tail and between the rear legs of a sheep); and
  • The use of preventative chemical treatments.

FOUR PAWS advocates for the above solutions to be adopted, and strongly encourages Australian producers to prioritise shifting away from flystrike susceptible types (as shown below – the wrinkled sheep on the left) to flystrike resistant types (the plain bodied sheep on the right).

Recently shorn wrinkly vs. smooth sheep skin types. Image courtesy of Dr. Jim Watts of SRS Merino.

Brands and consumers are a crucial component of the solution to ending mulesing, and together we can send a signal that this practice needs to end. Encouragingly, over 180 brands including Hugo Boss, Adidas, GAP, Kathmandu, and H&M, have now committed to stop using mulesed wool.

Every purchasing decision can make a difference and brands can further empower consumers by being transparent. Greater brand transparency will lead to better protection for millions of Aussie sheep and animals overall. It’s up to us to demand it.
Jessica Medcalf, Head of Programs, FOUR PAWS Australia
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How can you help end mulesing?

What is FOUR PAWS doing about it?

FOUR PAWS is building consumer awareness of mulesing and working to mobilise change in key wool markets. We are actively engaging with all sectors of the wool industry, brands, and retailers, as well as peak fashion institutions and government, working collaboratively alongside other animal protection organisations to advocate for higher standards of sheep welfare standards.

Together we can call for change, and protect millions of vulnerable lambs from mulesing AND flystrike!

References – Infographic
A. Edwards L, 2012. ‘Lamb mulesing: impact on welfare and alternatives.’ CAB Reviews: Perspectives in Agriculture, Veterinary Science, Nutrition and Natural Resources, 7(061), Accessed 13 June 2018
B. Fell L & Shutt D 1989, ‘Behavioural and hormonal responses to acute surgical stress’, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, vol 22, pp 283-294, accessed 22 June 2018
C. Edwards L, 2012. ‘Lamb mulesing: impact on welfare and alternatives.’ CAB Reviews: Perspectives in Agriculture, Veterinary Science, Nutrition and Natural Resources, 7(061), Accessed 13 June 2018
D. The Weekly Times, ‘Gel spray the way to go for mulesing pain relief’ August 30 2016, accessed 6 April 2019
E. Brown J 2018. ‘Super-fine producers in box seat as Italian mills compete for dwindling supply.’ The Land, accessed 9 March 2018