Millions of sheep are farmed in New Zealand for their meat and wool. Idyllic images of sheep grazing green pastures portrayed in industry advertising mask the harsher reality that sheep experience serious animal welfare problems during their lives (1).
The problems begin at birth. Disturbing numbers of lambs die from cold and inadequate nutrition, during their first few days of life. Rough weather, lack of shelter, winter lambing, ewes with twins or triplets, and poor management, all contribute. Those that survive face husbandry procedures such as tail-docking, castration and ear-tagging, usually in their first six months of life. These are acutely painful, with tail-docking and ear-tagging resulting in severe pain for hours to days (2-4).
There is no doubt that painkillers effective throughout the painful period are necessary. Sadly, animal welfare regulations do not adequately protect sheep. Many animals continue to experience these procedures without adequate painkillers, because it is cheaper and quicker not to administer them.
Sheep also experience varying levels of nutrition, hunger and exposure to the weather, throughout their lives, and many become lame, suffering from painful conditions, such as footrot (5-6).
Shearing is a stressful procedure for sheep. The animals are herded by sheepdogs or people, whom sheep are naturally fearful of. This is followed by isolating an animal from the flock, which causes stress in these highly social animals, that are naturally a prey species, fearful of separation and capture. The sheep are then manhandled into awkward and uncomfortable postures, often on their backs, to have their wool coat shorn.
Most shearers are skilled, but the job is very physical and paid by volume rather than hourly. As a result, shearers handle as many sheep as possible in a working day. Tired shearers may become frustrated when frightened animals baulk. Recent video footage has shown Australian shearers punching sheep in the face, kicking them, and subjecting them to even worse, unacceptable abuses.
After shearing, sheep experience the shock of cold – especially those shorn in winter, in cold climates such as New Zealand’s southern or mountainous regions. Finally, as with other farmed animals, sheep are rounded up again by people and sheepdogs, crowded into trucks, enduring the stresses associated with transportation, before arriving at the slaughterhouse. Further poor welfare and stress occur there.
Perhaps the most serious animal welfare concern relates to the proportion of sheep that are unsuccessfully stunned prior to being shackled and hung upside-down, and having their throats cut, because of failures of equipment or technique. This affects a small but significant proportion of all animals slaughtered (7).
British CCTV footage has also repeatedly revealed abusive treatment of animals in slaughterhouses.
Progress such as increased use of painkillers is slowly occurring, but compliance with best practice is far from uniform. Many serious animal welfare problems will inevitably continue to cause substantial suffering for millions of sheep annually.
Like other mammals, sheep are sentient creatures, capable of feeling cold, pain stress and fear. Please do not give the sheep farming industry a financial incentive to continue. Instead, please consider kinder and healthier choices in favour of plant-based meals, and clothing fibres such as cotton or hemp.
- Stafford K. (2013). Chapter 5: Welfare of Sheep and Goats. In Animal Welfare in New Zealand. Cambridge, New Zealand: New Zealand Society of Animal Production. 56 – 71.
- Farm Animal Welfare Council (2008). FAWC report on the implications of castration and tail docking for the welfare of lambs. Accessed 29 Sep. 2017.
- AVMA (2014). Welfare Implications of Tail Docking of Lambs. Accessed 29 Sep. 2017.
- Windsor, P.A. and White LP. (2016). Progress in pain management to improve small ruminant farm welfare. Small Ruminant Res. 142: 55-57.
- Farm Animal Welfare Council (2011). Opinion on Lameness in Sheep. Accessed 29 Sep. 2017.
- Raadsma, H.W., Dhungyel, O.P. (2013). A review of footrot in sheep: New approaches for control of virulent footrot. Livestock Science, 156 (1-3): 115-125.
- Grandin, T. (2010). Auditing animal welfare at slaughter plants. Meat Science, 86(1), 56-65.
- Spread the word in your community: ask friends and family not to buy wool, and to make use of the variety of alternatives.