ANNE KRUGER, PRESENTER: This year about 5 per cent of Merino sheep across southern Australia have died from blow fly strike. It’s a shocking and agonising death, and for most growers the controversial practice of mulesing is the most effective way of saving their sheep.
Sean Murphy reports on trials of new pain relief medication which some of the industry’s staunchest critics argue is an important interim measure until viable mulesing alternatives are found – and we should warn that viewers may find some of the images in this story confronting.
ON SCREEN: Pain relief
SEAN MURPHY, REPORTER: At Royal Oak near Goulburn in New South Wales it’s lamb marking time. But these super fine wool Petali Merinos are being injected with a light sedative before they undergo the sorts of on-farm surgical operations that are common place across the industry.
A University of Sydney research team is monitoring the effectiveness of using the sedative analgesic Xylazine as a preoperative pain relief measure.
SABRINA LOMAX, UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY: Preliminary results from small trials that we’ve done so far have shown us that we do get a highly significant difference between lambs that have been treated with Xylazine and lambs that haven’t in terms of their pain responses at the time of mulesing.
And from today’s trial I think we’ll probably see a similar level of significant difference there as well.
(to team) Three.
TEAM MEMBER: Three.
SEAN MURPHY: Mulesing is a confronting but necessary procedure. It’s the surgical removal of skin folds which catch dung and urine and attract blow flies. This year’s wet summer saw more than 5 per cent of ewes and wethers across southern Australia die from fly strike.
It’s an agonising death but the pain of prevention has damaged the Australian wool industry’s international standing.
Faced with retail boycotts, the industry’s marketing and research company, Australian Wool Innovation has promised to encourage growers to use pain relief until alternatives to mulesing are found.
Xylazine is already an approved veterinary product. Its application in small doses is being developed by Animal Ethics, the same company which introduced the post-operative spray treatment trisulphin.
(Lamb hung upside down with bloody patch of skin under tail)
CHICK OLSSON, ANIMAL ETHICS: It’s been elusive find something we could use that was so easy and so practical, so this for us is probably closing a loop seven years ago of a full pre and post operation that I think is the ultimate alternative for mulesing and other operations.
SABRINA LOMAX: This method we found works much better.
SEAN MURPHY: Former AWI director Chick Olsson is a major shareholder in Animal Ethics. He said trisulphin will be used on more than five million lambs this year and he hopes the new preoperative treatment has the same take up.
But he says it’s not just farmers that need convincing. At this trial, the RSPCA and animal liberation were interested observers.
CHICK OLSSON: You have to bring these people in. You have to be inclusive. You have to be transparent. We came in to an industry where these people were being sued by the former regime and our view point is, let’s bring them in together. Let’s make them part of the team and if they truly believe in welfare they’ll work with us on it.
So it’s critical that they’re here.
SEAN MURPHY: Animal Ethics technical director Dr Meredith Shiel is also an AWI director. She’s a paediatrician and fine wool grower who’s been working on pain relief for animals since 2004.
She says the new treatment is complimentary to trisulphin and should be available for about 30 cents a sheep.
DR MEREDITH SHEIL, ANIMAL ETHICS: I think it’s important for us to do a wide range of field trials and that’s what today is about. We want to look at the dose and the applicator, make sure we can get a product that farmers can use that’s safe, that’s effective in a whole range of environments – whether you’re in the middle of outback or whether you’re in the top of mountains in the middle of winter.
So for us it’s a matter of doing more of these field trials over the coming year, but if the results are great, you know, we’re hopeful that we could have a product very quickly.
(Discusses application methods with farmer)
SEAN MURPHY: Animal ethics got a near $500,000 Commonwealth Government grant to help develop its new application.
Dr Sheil says she can manage any perceived conflict of interest between her role with Animal Ethics and as director of AWI.
MEREDITH SHEIL: My interest is clearly declared and I would withdraw from being involved with discussions or voting, for example, on any of those sorts of issues and that’s the way that I have handled it ever since I’ve been on the board.
So wherever the company itself may be investing in research into pain relief or procedures to reduce the need for mulesing, even, you know, my interest in trisolfen is fully open and declared and I’m always willing to withdraw from those sort of conversations and decisions.