Why is sheep farming popular in Australia

Why sheep are mutilated for wool sweaters - and their alternatives

by Peter Carstens
In Australia, the majority of sheep are circumcised on the buttocks without stunning - to protect the animals from fly maggot infestation. More and more consumers and brands are rejecting this cruel practice

Wool sweaters and socks are particularly popular in the cold season. They are cozy and keep the body warm. But what many do not know: A large proportion of the sheep that are bred and kept for our wool consumption are brutally mutilated. Mulesing is the name of the cruel practice, named after its "inventor", the Australian sheep farmer John Mules.

The problem that Mules wanted to solve literally lies in the sheep's bum: Merino sheep in particular have - due to their breeding - a woolly and wrinkled anus region. Feces and urine make these areas irresistible for blowflies. The insects lay their eggs on the woolly folds of the skin, into which the larvae later eat their way. If the infestation is severe, sheep can even die of later infections.

Mules began to simply cut off the critical areas of skin around the tail and below the tail of young sheep. Without any anesthesia.

The procedure proved effective and spread quickly. And it is still used today - with the hint that the animals are spared the infestation by the annoying fly larvae or worse. Often part of the tail is also docked. Around 70 percent of all young merino wool sheep in Australia, the largest wool producer in the world, still have to endure this procedure today.

Mulesing is cruelty to animals

Scientific studies have shown that the procedure is very stressful for the animals. Two days later, the animals show an increased level of the stress hormone cortisol and are extremely jumpy and do not play for up to four days afterwards.

But what is the alternative? Researchers are experimenting with fly traps and working on a vaccine against the blowfly larvae. More promising, however, seems to be the breeding of sheep that smell unattractive for blowflies and that have little wool and skin folds on their butts.

The example of New Zealand, also a major player in the global wool market, shows that there is no cruelty to animals. Mulesing has been banned here since 2018.

This is not a disadvantage for the breeders. Because more and more consumers are making sure that no animals are tortured for their clothing consumption. And for wool that is guaranteed to be mulesing-free, prices are higher in the market.

What you can do

  • When buying wool products, you should pay attention to appropriate labels, e.g. Responsible Wool Standard (RWS), ZQ Merino, NATIVA or New Merino.
  • If you are unsure ask the manufacturer. This also has the effect of making manufacturers more sensitive to animal welfare issues. The Australian animal welfare organization Four Paws lists international manufacturers on its website who are already committed to combating mulesing. The problem is often the lack of transparency in the supply chains. The German partner organization Vier Pfoten recently found in a ranking that only four out of 28 manufacturers of knitting wool can rule out mulesing with any degree of certainty.
  • Does it really have to be wool? Even though wool is mulesing-free, the product was obtained from an animal that was only produced for its wool and meat. There are cozy alternatives, for example made from organic cotton, modal, hemp or polyester fleece.