Without human interference, sheep would grow just enough wool to protect themselves from the elements but, since wool is a commodity, sheep have been bred to produce more of it.
In Australia – which is the largest producer of wool, supplying 25 percent of the world’s wool1 – the most common breed of sheep is the merino.2 They are bred to have folds of skin and this produces more fleece.3 However, the folds of skin are a prime site for flies to lay their eggs, and when the larvae hatch, they eat away at the sheep’s skin, causing severe suffering and ultimately death. To try to prevent this, farmers may undertake ‘mulesing’ – the practice of cutting away the skin around the most common ‘flystrike’ site – the buttocks and tail – without anesthetic and often without analgesic.4
Mulesing is a painful procedure carried out on lambs when they are 6-10 weeks old. The pain is described as ‘acute’ and ‘long-lasting’5 – from at least 48 hours up to several weeks.
The RSPCA in Australia says: ‘Mulesed lambs will socialize less, lose weight in the first two weeks post mulesing, exhibit behavioral indicators of pain including prolonged hunched standing and less time lying and feeding, and stand in a hunched position.’ 6
At the same time, the lambs may have to undergo other routine mutilations such as tail docking, castration and ear notching or tagging.7
So, humans have created breeds of sheep that produce a lot of wool on purpose, and perhaps the wool we shear is not as natural as might be expected. As for the process of shearing, it can be a painful, stressful and injurious practice, and one that leaves animals hurt, bleeding and traumatized. The RSPCA in Australia calls shearing ‘an acute stressor’ for sheep.8
Because sheep shearers are often paid by the number of animals they shear,9 the process is fast and furious. They can shear up to 200 sheep a day (2-3 minutes per sheep).10 Inevitably, nicks and cuts may occur if the sheep struggles, has excessively wrinkled skin or the shearer is distracted or under time pressure. Where deep cuts occur, these are usually sewn up by the shearer.11
Thankfully, there are plenty of excellent synthetic alternatives and we do not need to cause such suffering to these gentle creatures in order to clothe ourselves.
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