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Mulesing: Cruel or Kind?
Mulesing is a skilled surgical task that involves the removal of sections of wool-bearing skin from around the breech (buttocks) of a sheep. Mulesing is common practice in Australia as a way to reduce the incidence of flystrike on Merino sheep in regions where flystrike is common.
Flystrike or Myiasis is a particularly horrible condition whereby flies lay eggs (usually) on the hindquarters of sheep, the eggs hatch within a day and the larvae burrow into the living tissue of the sheep and live off it until they pupate and fly off. This causes extreme pain and illness and if not treated swiftly is very likely to give the host animal a horrible slow death.
Mulesing is carried out on Merino sheep because the natural skin folds around their hindquarters are deeper than other breeds. More skin means more wool and increases the yield of wool per animal but also causes them to be more vulnerable to flystrike than other breeds.
Mulesing is illegal in the UK and virtually unknown in the northern hemisphere except China, partly because the Merino sheep does not thrive in Europe (except Spain).
Mulesing is a controversial topic with many opinions. Some think the practice is very cruel, some think the alternative is much more cruel. The (Australian) National Farmers Federation claim that "mulesing remains the most effective practical way to eliminate the risk of 'flystrike' in sheep" and that "without mulesing up to 3,000,000 sheep a year could die a slow and agonising death from flystrike". "The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) recognises the welfare implications of mulesing of sheep. However, in the absence of more humane alternatives for preventing breech strike, the AVA accepts that the practice of mulesing should continue as a sheep husbandry procedure". The AVA also supports the use of analgesics and the accreditation of mulesing practitioners. According to National Farmers' Federation president Peter Corish, the animal welfare organisation Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals "accept[s] the practice of mulesing as a necessary sheep husbandry procedure to prevent flystrike.". The american animal rights organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) strongly opposes mulesing, claiming the practice is cruel and painful, and that more humane alternatives exist and that the 3 million deaths claim is a myth.
In July 2009, representatives of the Australian wool industry scrapped an earlier promise, made in November 2004, to phase out the practice of mulesing [on merino sheep] in Australia by 31 December 2010. (source Wikipedia et al). There are many ways that the practice may be improved or superseded including breeding flystrike resistant sheep with less wrinkly bottoms and developing pain relief analgesic sprays as a local anasthetic.
Our view is that we should all apply as much pressure as possible to make all animal husbandry as kind to all animals as possible. Good animal husbandry involves meeting many needs of the animal and is often more complicated than might at first seem to people who have only seen videos of mulesing ditributed by pressure groups. Having a farm with our own small flock of sheep in England has made us aware of the true horrors of flystrike, which is most definitely far worse than the brief pain endured from mulesing. We are lucky that there's no need to mules sheep in the UK, and although we use other preventative measures flystrike does occasionally happen and it's horrible for the animal (as well as the farmer). There are many people who are too quick to opine loudly only knowing some (if any) of the facts and not enough who carefully balance both sides of the argument!
Mulesing is not practised on our sheep here in the UK or on the sheep that provide wool for our duvets, throws, sheepskins or blankets, except for the Merino blankets and throws.