The Australian wool industry is set to once more come under fire for the controversial procedure known as mulesing. Animal rights activists are warning the industry that they are readying to relaunch their campaign against retailers who sell wool from mulesed sheep.
“We’re giving them until the 1st of January 2014,” says the Animal Justice Party’s Mark Pearson, “otherwise the campaign will be ramped up and reinvigorated.”
In 2004, graphic vision of merinos being mulesed – having wrinkled skin cut away from their backside, with the large gaping wound left to bleed – sparked a global campaign to boycott Australian wool. The industry responded with a promise to phase out the practice by 2010.
But more than 90 per cent of Australian wool sold at auction still comes from mulesed sheep. Farmers say that the alternative is even crueller.
“It is probably the most unpleasant thing you can do to a lamb,” says farmer Chick Olsson. “It’s something I know a lot of good people who are farming sheep that hate doing… but they know if they don’t do it, the consequences are just tragic.”
The problem arises due to blowflies. The flies, attracted by the scent of urine or faeces, make their nest in the wrinkly merino posterior – or “breech”. As their eggs hatch, the larvae eat the sheep alive. This is known as flystrike, and can kill a sheep from shock and blood loss within three or four days.
To avoid that, farmers have traditionally cut off the breech – common practice in Australia since the 1950s. The scarred skin of a mulesed merino has no folds or wrinkles to hold moisture and faeces, and so is less attractive to blowflies.