Optimistic Vegan

All About Wool
November 23, 2010, 10:29 am
Filed under: Animal Rights | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Recently wool has come up in conversation a few times and I think that it needs to be discussed.

On the surface, wool seems like it would be a humane product. Unlike obtaining leather from cows, it’s not necessary to kill sheep to take their wool. However, taking wool from sheep is an industry and because it’s an industry we can guess that the sheep’s well-being isn’t taken into account. As you can imagine, for mass production and efficiency, there are huge numbers of sheep on a farm and managing these numbers and keeping them all healthy is near impossible.

Like other furry animals, sheep build up their wool to keep warm during the winter and they shed it to keep cool in the summer. However, if they shed their fur it would be much more difficult to harvest it for our use, so they are sheared before they would normally shed. For the sheep this means that their bodies are left unguarded against the elements and many die from exposure.

80% of the world’s wool comes from Australia, which means that the majority of the wool products in the US originate here. So when I talk about the wool industry, I’m predominantly talking about Australian sheep, but it’s important to remember that is the industry that Americans support.

The most common type of sheep to raise for its wool is merino. Merino sheep (which have been cross bred to produce massive amounts of wool) are popular to raise for wool because they have wrinkled skin. More skin means more surface area, which means more wool. While this may sound ingenious, the folded skin traps water and starts to smell. The odor attracts flies, which lay eggs and the maggots then eat the sheep alive. This is called “fly strike” or “blow flies.” The industry’s solution for this is called “mulesing.” Mulesing is where the skin on the back half of the sheep is cut off, without the use of painkillers (not cost efficient!). When the skin grows back it will be tight and scarred, so the wool will grow on unwrinkled skin. This mostly prevents blowflies, but at what cost? There must be a better solution. Blowflies are prevented on the back half of the sheep, but can still affect them on their top half. Mulesing is usually done when the sheep are still babies, and their tails are also cut off, they’re branded, and the males are castrated. P1010522

Notice the long tail on this sheep! This sheep was at Farm Sanctuary.

Historically all sheep would shed their wool in the summer and build it up for the winter. However, sheep have now been bred to not shed their wool and unfortunately are now dependent on shearing. Although sheep must be sheared, in no way is it for their benefit or well-being. Shearers are paid by volume, not by the amount of sheep they shear, so they go extremely fast without much regard to the sheep. As you can imagine, the sheep are often cut by the shears which also often result in infection.

Once they are too sick to carry on, they are shipped to a slaughterhouse. The word shipped is actually quite literal because they are usually shipped from Australia to the middle east/Africa. (You may have heard of the Cormo Express. In 2003 it was refused by a port, and it was at sea for much longer than planned. The sheep were confined for much longer that what anyone would consider humane.) They are usually slaughtered after around 4-5 years (rather than the 15-20 years they would normally live).

I’m sure there are humane ways to “harvest” sheep wool, especially because most modern breeds need to be sheared. However, because most wool comes from huge production plants, do not believe that the sheep are treated humanely.


A happy sheep at Farm Sanctuary!


Note: Thank you to Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, as much of this information came from her podcast entitled “The Shearing of Sheep”.


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