Sheep typically live for 10-12 years, and some have reached 20 years of age. In the wool industry, farmers consider sheep to be no longer profitable at around 5 or 6 years old, and they are sent to slaughter.
Just as human hair starts to thin and become brittle as we age, so does wool. An older sheep produces lesser quality wool than a younger one, while still needing just as much food and attention. These ‘older sheep’, who are only about half way into their natural lives, are killed and sold as a cheaper meat called mutton.
Farmers who sell their 5-6 year old sheep at saleyards will sell to the highest bidder, many of them are sold into the live export trade.
We are led to believe that wool comes from sheep who are left in peace except when they need shearing, this is far from the truth.
Some sheep are killed between 6-8 months old for ‘lamb’ meat, and will often be shorn prior to this (the first shearing produces the most profitable wool) while other sheep will be shorn multiple times before their slaughter at an older age.
Even sheep like Merinos, who are known for their high quality wool, are slaughtered for meat. More ‘product’ means more profit, and a fact sheet by the Australian Wool Initiative and The Woolmark Company states:
“Although the Merino is renowned for producing high-quality wool, it also can produce lots of meat, so it is known as a dual-purpose breed.”
It is legal, standard practice, recommended by Agriculture Victoria, to perform all manner of abuse upon baby lambs. This includes tail docking (the cutting, burning, or otherwise severing of a lamb’s tail) without anesthesia.
It is also legal to cut out testicles and perform mulesing (the slicing off of skin around the buttocks of lambs) without any pain relief. This is often done while a lamb is held in a ‘cradle’, as seen above. This is done to prevent fly strike, though it is entirely possible to prevent this through simple attention and care.
This blatant cruelty is recommended to be performed when lambs are just 2 to 12 weeks old.
During lambing season in Australia, between 10 to 15 million baby lambs die of starvation, neglect and exposure (often these are hypothermic deaths) within the first 48 hours of their lives.
Farmers practice winter lambing in order to produce the highest number of lambs at the lowest cost. Sheep are impregnated so they give birth in winter months and their babies are weaned in spring, the times that pastures are most fertile. This means the mothers have richer feed in winter and the surviving lambs grow fatter more quickly in springtime. The result of this is that lambs are born in the harsh conditions of winter, and up to a quarter of them do not survive their first few days.
In most cases, sheep and their babies are not provided sufficient shelter from the wind, rain and frost, or protection from predators, resulting in massive mortality during the harsh winter months. For farmers, the millions of deaths are an acceptable consequence of reduced feed costs and heavier spring lambs.
Due to years of selective breeding, farmed sheep regularly have twins and triplets.
Multiple births per pregnancy result in significant complications. Mother ewes exhaust themselves birthing multiple lambs and become downed (unable to stand). Prolapse and death is common, resulting in many orphaned lambs.
Multiple births lead babies to be born weaker and smaller, lowering their chances of survival. More lambs are rejected by their mothers as they are only able to adequately care for one. The result of these factors is a high number of deaths.
More babies mean more profit for farmers. When there are many babies being born and farmers have hundreds or thousands of sheep, the financial cost of locating and caring for these babies is greater than the cost of just leaving them to die.
Farmers often neglect the process of removing bodies and this attracts predators such as foxes and crows. Often they prey on the weak who have not yet died. Often downed ewes and lambs are found by our rescuers without their eyes and tails.
Agriculture Victoria recommends orphaned and stray lambs be ‘destroyed humanely’, by a ‘heavy blow to the back of the head… followed immediately by bleeding out’. It is not uncommon for hammers and rocks to be used as a cost effective approach.
While this is horrific, Animal Liberation Victoria (ALV) more commonly finds that lambs are abandoned, left to slowly die, as this means less work for farmers.
The term artificial insemination is a less confronting way to describe strapping down female sheep into ‘cradles’ and forcing semen into their uterus.
The semen is taken from a ram by hand or with a machine that masturbates the ram.
This hideous process is done when farmers want ‘stronger genes’ from sheep considered more profitable. Australia’s longest serving sheep artificial breeding centre states an ‘advantage of AI’ is that it provides ‘access to genetics of animals that are no longer alive’. This means that ewes can have semen forced into their uterus from rams who were slaughtered long ago.
Domesticated sheep are thought to have originated from Mouflon, who still exist today. These animals, like all wild sheep, have a thinner woolly layer covered by hair that can be shed for the summer months to avoid overheating.
Through selective breeding of woolier sheep, domesticated sheep must now be shorn or else they could die from overheating. We have created this unnatural health issue for the sake of greater profit.
A prime example of this is the Merino sheep, who is not only woolier than most sheep, but who has also been bred to have extra skin for the wool to grow. This extra skin can lead to increased shearing cuts and issues with fly strike.
If we stopped breeding sheep for our own use and abuse, eventually only wild sheep who don’t need shearing would exist and they would be able to live freely.
Shearers are paid either per animal or by the weight of the wool they shear, rather than by the hour. This means that there is an incentive to cut corners, speed makes shearers money. In a for-profit industry, money trumps the well-being of the sheep.
There is an enormous amount of undercover footage showing shearers in Australia and globally, throwing sheep, slamming them to the ground, holding their heads down with their feet, hitting them, cutting them and even sewing up large bloody wounds without any training or anesthesia.
Shearing is always stressful for sheep, this cannot be avoided. Even at animal sanctuaries where shearing is performed very carefully and only so the sheep can cool down for summer, sheep get frightened and try to escape from shearers, resulting in accidental small cuts and sores.
Sheep who are shorn too early in the winter often die from hypothermia.
As well as being shorn too soon, hypothermic death is often due to a lack of shelter from cold, rain and high winds. This is especially a problem with large flocks.
Country Road’s ‘A Good Yarn’ campaign states that one of their best suppliers shears during May and June. These months are freezing cold, especially in Tasmania where the station is located. Wool sells best in winter but sheep need their wool in winter so they don’t freeze to death. This farm and brand are not ‘outliers’ but are in fact considered to be committed to animal welfare and work with the Responsible Wool Standard.
When and why did we decide it was normal to make clothing out of the coats of some animals but not others?
When our companion animals such as dogs get haircuts, we never save the hair to make clothing. Why? Because it is not an established convention in our culture to do so. It would be considered ‘strange’ or ‘weird’ to make a dog or cat hair jumper. Yet it’s considered completely unremarkable to wear sheep hair.
It’s not ‘normal’ to use animals as though they are fabric-making machines rather than living beings.
Most farmed sheep flocks are very large, with hundreds or thousands of sheep. It is simply not possible for farmers to give care and attention to so many animals.
If just one or a few sheep among hundreds are injured or unwell, these sheep are often left to suffer. It is sadly common to find dead sheep in farming fields during rescues, even outside of winter and lambing season. The sheep in the picture above was found in a field with no green grass and no feed left for them.
The sheep above was downed after a difficult birth which could be seen by the blood and fluids coming out of her. Unable to get up or protect herself, her eyes had been pecked at by birds.
Reports published by the Global Fashion Agenda found that even virgin synthetic materials are less harmful to the environment than wool and have less impact upon water scarcity, global warming and eutrophication.
Animal agriculture is responsible for a large percentage of greenhouse gas emissions; more than the combined exhaust from all transportation, including planes.
Methane is considered to be roughly 30 times more potent than CO2 as a heat trapping gas, and sheep produce a lot of it.
Methane emissions from enteric fermentation (animal farts and burps) from the nation’s sheep population (27.34 million), make up one third of all New Zealand greenhouse gas emissions. In Australia it is estimated there are over 70 million sheep.
Sheep, being hoofed animals, also cause land degradation, especially when flocks cover so much land they are not native to.
In the first half of the 20th century, Patagonia in Argentina was second to Australia in wool production. When local sheep farmers scaled their operations too large in order to meet demand, their operations outgrew the ability of the land to sustain them. Soil erosion in the region has triggered a desertification process that officials estimate threatens as much as 93% of the land. Argentina is no longer a major wool producer.
With an array of natural, plant-based fabrics, as well as new technology that allows us to create warm clothing from recycled, natural and otherwise destined for landfill materials, it’s easy to stay warm without paying for cruelty to sheep.
Some natural materials which can be used to make jumpers, scarves and beanies include:
There are also lots of warm ‘wooly’ jumpers made from virgin man-made materials, and while these are not so sustainable, they are free from animal cruelty. There is also an abundance of these kinds of clothing that you can buy second hand or vintage to reduce your footprint!
Sheep, just like dogs, love affection!
When sheep have been raised in an environment in which humans have been kind to them (like our rescued sheep) they love to nuzzle in close, get cuddles and feel loved by another being.
There is no way to use wool ethically, because there is no right way to treat someone as something. Imagine if when we saw people, we saw what we could make from them, rather than who they were as a person?
Wearing wool (even secondhand, recycled or old) reinforces the idea that sheep are commodities to be used, rather than feeling beings who love and feel joy just like us when they are treated with respect and compassion.
There are so many vegan ‘wooly’ looking options available now, and not only are they warm, they look great!
Have a look at our selection of ‘wooly’ vegan winter wear for this year, and remember that as well as jumpers and sweaters there are plenty of hoodies, parkers and jackets to keep warm and cruelty-free during the winter!
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Meet some lucky winter lambs. Some saved from a freezing death in the cold, others from a lifetime of abuse by the wool industry, ending in slaughter when their lives are no longer considered profitable.
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