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Sheep wool

Wool production is a major industry, especially in Australia, New Zealand and South America. Australia alone has a sheep flock of 71 million sheep (2015) and produces approximately 80% of global merino wool used for apparel. Common farming practices present welfare problems to sheep during all stages of their lives.

FOUR PAWS wants to improve the lives of millions of sheep kept to produce wool.
© iStock | John Carnemolla

Lambs struggle to survive

Newborn lambs often struggle to survive in their first few days in the paddocks of large sheep farms. It is estimated that 15 million lambs die in Australia each year within 48 hours of birth¹. The cause often is exposure to cold weather in winter, lack of shelter or shade and food. Predation is another risk that the newborns face.


¹ Source


In mulesing, a lamb (usually less than six months old) is restrained upside-down in a cradle to cut off parts of the skin around the buttocks and tail with a pair of metal shears. The procedure leaves an open wound and, after healing, leaves a bare area where no wool grows. The procedure is performed on millions of lambs without any form of pain relief and even when pain relief is applied it only has limited and short-term effectiveness.

Mulesing is only practised in Australia and was invented to reduce the risk of flystrike, which in itself is a severe welfare problem for sheep. A sheep is fly struck when the larvae of blow flies eat the sheep’s tissue, causing severe pain, inflammation and eventually – when untreated – death.

Australian merino sheep have a high flystrike risk partly because they are purposely bred to grow excessive skin wrinkles and a high volume of wool to maximise productivity for the farmer. The urine and faeces which gets trapped in the wool can attract the blow flies.

FOUR PAWS strongly advocates for an end to mulesing. Alternative practises are available and should be used to limit the risk of flystrike to sheep. The flock should be made more flystrike resistant through selective breeding for plainer body sheep with less skin wrinkles, therefore reducing the risk of fly strike. More intensive farm management, such as more frequent shearing and crutching (the removal of wool from around the tail and between the rear legs of a sheep), the use of insecticides and intensive monitoring of the flock can also reduce flystrike risk.

There are Australian sheep farmers who have already stopped mulesing and advocate for an end to the practice. Consumers and major retail brands are also increasingly requesting non-mulesed wool for their products. 

Tail docking and castration

A routine practice in many wool producing countries is to cut off parts of the tails of lambs. This is done to reduce soiling and the risk of flystrike. In Australia, this is usually done at the same time as mulesing. Many male lambs even suffer from a third painful procedure, surgical castration. As with mulesing, it is fully legal to perform these procedures without the use of pain relief.



Human handling causes sheep a lot of stress, and under time pressure in the shearing shed, handling sometimes gets rough. The speed of shearing also leads to cuts, or larger wounds which are sown up (again often in a rush) without anaesthetic. 

Live animal export

Australia exported 1,959,761 sheep in 2015¹.The vast majority are sent on long, hot boat journeys to countries in the Middle East where the welfare of animals is virtually not considered at all and many countries have no laws to protect them. Brutal handling, extreme heat and slaughter whilst being fully conscious await most of these animals on arrival. For that reason, those who don’t survive the journey are sometimes called the ‘lucky ones’. Sadly, the 21,295 sheep that die on route each year (average for 2009-2014²) also suffer immensely.

Many sheep die due to dietary issues or because of heat stress. All animals on board endure extreme confinement, heat, noise and air filled with ammonia from urine.


¹ LiveCorp

² Official figures from the Australian Department of Agriculture

What FOUR PAWS does

FOUR PAWS is working to build consumer awareness of animal welfare issues in the farming of sheep for wool production.

FOUR PAWS actively engages with stakeholders to discuss and advocate higher sheep welfare standards in farming, as well as the sourcing of more animal-friendly wool, such as non-mulesed wool.

The textile industry will not stop using wool in the near future, but brands that choose to use wool have to take full responsibility for the welfare of the sheep in their supply chain. Therefore, implementing a standard, combined with strong compliance measures, can reduce negative welfare impacts for sheep. FOUR PAWS' aim is to achieve the highest possible requirements for farming practices and the treatment of sheep.

What you can do

The easiest way to protect sheep from harm is by not buying any products made from wool. There are plenty of non-animal alternatives made from cotton, linen, synthetic materials etc., which most of us are familiar with and wear every day. Also, new techniques look into the recyclability of wool.  

If you want to buy wool products, however, try to find a locally made product from local wool, so that you can trace the wool back to the farm and check the farming practices with the farmer yourself. Responsible consumption makes a difference. If you buy less, but of higher welfare or alternative materials, you are reducing animal suffering.