There is a fair bit to cover as there are some misconceptions about wool and how it is produced. I will try to cover as much as possible as directly as possible. We’ll start with a very simple question: “what is wool?” and then cover five reasons why wool is actually a very cruel product, which should not be in the wardrobe of any animal lover.
What is Wool?
Wool is a fibre that grows on the bodies of sheep, the same way as we grow hair. It grows in groups of wavy fibres and is used to make things like clothing. It helps keep you warm but personally, I think it itches so never liked it!
Sheep are sheared, (shaved), to get their wool off to be turned into products for our use. I wasn’t surprised to learn that most people believe that sheep have to be shaved and we are actually helping them. This is not the case, sheep survive just fine in the wild without us!
Some breeds of domestic sheep, like the Merino, have been selectively bred to produce very thick coats which they don’t naturally shed
In natural animals, sheep produce just enough wool to protect themselves from extremes of temperature, for example, the Romanov, an ancient Russian breed, like most other animals their coats don’t grow continuously but are shed each spring as the weather warms.
5 REASONS WHY WOOL IS CRUEL
1. Commercial wool is not natural
As discussed above, sheep don’t actually need to be sheared, the wool we use is from unnatural animals. It’s pretty cruel that we have created these beings who rely so heavily on us for survival. If they aren’t sheared in the spring they suffer terribly with the heat and many succumb to fly strike.
Fly strike is a painful and potentially fatal occurrence where flies lay their eggs on the sheep, which then hatch into maggots and begin feeding on their live host. Having seen fly strike on a number of occasions, it is as you would expect, horrific.
It is believed that the Mouflon, a wild sheep native to Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Iran, is the ancestor for all modern domestic sheep breeds.
2. The practice of mulesing
Twenty five percent of the worlds wool comes from Australia, where they breed the merino sheep to have extra folds of skin. This is because more surface area of skin means that they produce more wool.
Because of this, urine and faeces get stuck in the folds around the buttocks and the backs of the legs of these sheep which is very desirable to flies and is a common cause of flystrike. In a crude and violent attempt to prevent this, farmers restrain lambs when they are a few weeks old and cut off the wrinkled skin from their rump to the tops of their legs. This practice is called Mulesing.
Once the skin has scarred over it greatly reduces the chances of fly strike in that area, although they are still at risk on the rest of their bodies.
This is an extremely painful process, as I’m sure you can imagine, and there is no Australian law that requires any pain relief is offered to these baby animals.
The legal cruelty that secretly goes on all around us is staggering, you can’t make this stuff up, why would you want to?!
Although we have established that many sheep do need to be sheared due to human interference, the act of shearing itself is brutal.
Farmers will describe it as, “getting a haircut”; maybe if your hairdresser was an angry Edward Scissorhands after a weekend bender! Sheep are prey animals and their primary defence is to flee. So when they are manhandled by the shearers and held to the ground this in itself is an acute stressor, when you add in the process of being shorn this must be terrifying for them.
What many people don’t realise is that sheep shearers are paid per sheep, up to 200 a day, which only leaves them with a couple of minutes to shear the entire sheep. When working under these conditions it will come as no surprise that sheep often receive deep, painful cuts which are roughly sewn up with no legal requirement to use pain relief.
Another point to consider is that we, (sadly), have no control over the weather! So if the farmers don’t time it right and the weather turns cold shortly after shearing, sheep die from hypothermia. Their thick coat is cut down to just 1/8 of an inch so they are extremely susceptible to lower temperatures.
4. Castration and docking
Unfortunately, mutilating animals is a very common practice in the farming world, and the wool industry is not exempt from this in the form of castration and docking.
To prevent unwanted breeding and to make them more manageable, male sheep are castrated. Although there are a number of ways that this is done, and all of them barbaric, the easiest and most common method is “banding”.
This involves restraining a tiny lamb when he is less than a week old, placing a tight band above his testicles and around the neck of his scrotum. This will cause his testicles and scrotum to shrivel up and after a few weeks, fall off. I challenge any male farmer who says this is not inhumane and extremely painful to do this to himself; or a female farmer to pick a body part.
A common practice is to dock the tails of lambs, making them shorter. Not only is this cruel but it is natural for sheep to have a tail, it protects the ewes vulva and udder from extremes of weather and they use their tail to scatter their faeces.
As with castration, there are a number of cruel ways in which their tails are docked, but once again banding is the easiest and most common method used.
The band is placed around the tail, this cuts off the blood supply causing the tail to atrophy and in a few weeks it falls off. This is also done within the first week of a lambs life, what an awful start these poor animals have, especially the boys who will have both their tails and testicles painfully removed. Within the first week of their lives they will have felt at the very best extreme discomfort but more likely constant pain, this is inexcusable.
5. What happens when wool sheep get older?
It is a romantic thought that wool sheep spend their lives roaming green hills with their flock until they pass peacefully at a ripe old age, but as with any farmed animal, this is not to be.
While sheep live an average of 12 years, they have been known to live to up to 20 years. But as they get to around 5/6 years of age their coat starts to thin and become more brittle. When this happens they become less profitable to the farmer, while still requiring the same amount of care and food as younger sheep. As this is a very profit-driven industry, the lives of sheep are expendable and these sheep are sent to slaughter.
Slaughter is a terror-inducing and violent death, everything from the scary truck ride on busy roads, to the queue at the slaughterhouse seeing, hearing and smelling their flock members getting brutalised, to them finally having their throat roughly sawn open.
No image provided. You are welcome!!
For many it is even worse, they are live exported before meeting their end. Australia (the worlds largest wool producer), exports most of its sheep to the Middle East, many of these sheep destined to take part in the annual festival of sacrifice as very unwilling participants.
The journey by sea takes around 3-5 weeks on a filthy, disease-ridden ship. A simple internet search of news articles will disgust anyone with an ounce of compassion at the horror story that is live export.
Is the wool industry as wholesome as it portrays?
I picked these 5 relatively unknown reasons about why wool is cruel for this article and it genuinely upset me writing it. These are not the only reasons, of course, but I decided if these 5 weren’t enough to make people want to distance themselves from the practice, then nothing would.
Wool is seen as a wholesome product and shearing an act of kindness, a symbiotic relationship between sheep and humans going back thousands of years. Although the wool industry seeks to deceive us, we now know the truth is far darker, it is a brutal, violent and profit-driven industry and wool has no place in the home of any compassionate consumer.
A happy family
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Feature image by 👀 Mabel Amber, who will one day from Pixabay, Wild mouflon image by Paul Henri Degrande from Pixabay, A happy family image by NickyPe from Pixabay. Transporting sheep photo by Jo-Anne McArthur on Unsplash. Thank you 🙂