To mules or not to mules — it is a vexed issue for any woolgrower.
The controversial practice involves removing the skin around the breech, or anus, and the tail area of the sheep.
The technique was developed in the 1930s to reduce the risk of flystrike, where maggots eat into the flesh of the sheep while it is alive.
Australian Wool Innovation says flystrike is difficult to detect early and can be rapidly kill the animal.
But the industry has faced significant pressure from animal welfare groups, who have long called for the end of mulesing, arguing it is cruel.
A significant number of farmers have stopped the practice, while others see it as necessary but choose to use pain relief.
In western Queensland, the Counsell brothers have chosen two different management techniques — with one mulesing and the other not.
David Counsell is from Dunblane near Barcaldine in western Queensland.
He decided to stop mulesing in 2009, and said increased scrutiny from consumers and demand for better animal welfare encouraged him to change.
“City people are very interested in what we do to our animals and how we work with our animals,” David said.
“Their perceptions of how animals should be run are really important. After all, they are the ones buying all the products that we produce.
I don’t see blowfly like everyone talks about, so I wonder why are we mulesing? I know I don’t need to mules my sheep.David Counsell
“So we have to be mindful of how they think about animals and how good of a job we are doing.
“That is a big driver for me about mulesing — that city people don’t connect the dots well between what mulesing is meant to be doing.
“They are wanting to know that we are an industry saying ‘we mules because we don’t have an alternative’, but we do have alternatives now.
“That is part of my story. I see an opportunity here to get ahead of the game, learn how to run un-mulesed in this part of the world and deliver on that requirement by our customers to ensure I have a good record when it comes to animal welfare.”
David said he had bred specific sheep to be flystrike-resistant.
“I have three strategies in place: genetics, chemicals and a management calendar, giving me a multifactorial solution,” he said.
“All of my blowfly prevention stuff is all gathering dust in the shed; I haven’t used it in years.
“I don’t see blowfly like everyone talks about, so I wonder why are we mulesing?
“I know I don’t need to mules my sheep.”
David said his management decision opened his wool up for maximum competition.
“It is hard to demonstrate that there is a premium for non mulesed wool,” he said.
“What I do know is that when I tick that box on the national wool declaration, I am more likely to attract someone who is chasing wool from sheep that haven’t been mulesed [rather] than the next bloke [who] might have mulesed.”
Fifty kilometres down the road at Lyndon lives David’s brother Scott, who continues to mules his sheep.
With flystrike estimated to cost the Australian sheep industry $280 million each year, Scott Counsell said blowfly attacks and their impact on animals was as big a welfare issue as mulesing.
He defended the practice as a management strategy to protect his sheep.
If you see sheep covered with flies and whatnot, that is a terrible outcome for animal welfare and mulesing does alleviate that problem …a huge percentage of guys are using pain relief in that situation.Richard Halliday, WoolProducers Australia president
“I mules because it is a management issue, it is a husbandry issue as well,” Scott said.
“At certain times of the year, if everything is in the blowflies’ favour, they can be quite bad.”
Australian Wool Innovation said its long term aim was to remove the need for mulesing through better breeding and herd management.
However, where the risk of flystrike remains high, it encourages woolgrowers to use what it describes as “welfare-improved practices”, such as the use of pain relief when mulesing.
Scott said that was a change he had been willing to make.
“We are going to use it, but because of the drought we have sold all our sheep, so we will go down that path and start using it,” he said.
In terms of premiums Scott said he could not see any difference in price for non-mulesed sheep.
“Whether you have wool that is mulesed or not mulesed going up on the same day, I am seeing no difference at the moment,” he said.
“Until there is a definite premium there will be people that continue to mules, and people to choose to breed different type of sheep.
“But until that [premium] changes, I can’t see that we will all be going down that ease of management yet.”
Richard Halliday, president of the national advocacy body, WoolProducers Australia said it was up to individual producers to decide if mulesing was a feasible option for their business.
“It is a decision [each producer] makes for their own business in the best interest of their animal welfare,” Mr Halliday said.
“At this point in time, our policy is that producers will do what is best for the welfare of their own animal.
“In some situations, mulesing is still the best option.
“If you see sheep covered with flies and whatnot, that is a terrible outcome for animal welfare and mulesing does alleviate that problem by removing that little bit of skin near the breech and stops animals from having those issues.
“And there is a huge percentage of guys who are using pain relief in that situation [when mulesing] anyway.”