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How brands can transition to pain free, non-mulesed sheep wool

By Simone Preuss

Oct 29, 2019

Four Paws, the global animal protection organisation, has just launched a detailed guidebook to assist brands in understanding how they can transition their wool supply chain away from mulesed sheep wool and provides an overview of the available wool assurance initiatives. Titled ‘Transitioning away from mulesed sheep wool,’ the detailed guidebook was presented at the Textiles Exchange, which took place from 15th to 18th October in Vancouver, Canada.

What is mulesing?

Mulesing is a technique developed in the 1920 by John Mules to reduce flystrike in sheep. It is usually done to 2- to 10-week-old lambs that entails stripping off the skin around their breech (the rear end) and tail stumps, often without anesthesia and pain relief after, leaving an open wound that takes weeks to heal and the intense pain causes the lambs to go into a state of shock, the stress and pain ultimately leading to decreased mobility and weight gain and thus higher mortality.

What is flystrike?

Flystrike is an infection in sheep caused by blowflies that lay their eggs on sheep, preferring areas with skin wrinkles and faeces and urine in the breech wool. After hatching, the maggots bury themselves into the skin and flesh, causing an infestation and wounds that, if left undetected and untreated, can lead to debilitating pain and even death. However, mulesing is not an effective method to avoid flystrike as sheep can still be struck on other parts of their bodies. A better, quicker and pain free solution is to breed sheep that are naturally wrinkle free and have plain coats.

Mulesing is done only in Australia, what is the problem?

Though mulesing is not commonly used in any other country with some (like New Zealand) even having made the practice illegal, the fact remains that Australia produces 75 percent of all the world’s apparel wool. Though approximately 3,000 Australian wool producers have already stopped mulesing, they are making up only about 10 percent of the national output. According to a recent You Gov opinion poll, almost 50 percent of Australians, who are aware of animal cruelty issues within fashion supply chains, are concerned about mulesing. However, a nationwide ban of the practice is not very likely at this point, which is why brands and retailers need to step up.

“Using mulesed wool is a key risk area for brands, and Four Paw’s guidebook is a very useful tool to help brands start their journey towards more responsibly sourced wool. By supporting an industry-wide transition to mulesed free wool, we can work together to end mulesing once and for all,” says Madelene Ericsson, sustainability business expert at the H&M Group.

According to Jessica Metcalf, Four Paw Australia’s head of programme, more than 100 brands have already committed to non-mulesed wool (a list of which the organisation plans to publish in the coming months): “In today’s world, fashion is about the story of a product – and mulesing is not a story brands want to tell. It’s no surprise that over 100 brands have already committed to transitioning away from mulesed sheep wool.”

“By 2025, 100 percent of our wool will be sourced in line with industry best practices, such as the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS),” promises Bestseller. “There shall be no mulesing of sheep used for wool production destined for VF products,” agrees the VF Corporation. “To promote animal welfare,Uniqlo is abolishing merino wool suppliers who source from farmers practicing mulesing,” says Uniqlo in the guidebook.

And it is good business practice for brands to do so: “It’s clear from our conversations at Textiles Exchange that brands are very concerned about the impact of mulesed wool - not only from an animal welfare perspective, but for the reputation of their own brands and ultimately, risks to investor interest. If brands who sell wool are not actively excluding mulesed sheep wool, it’s likely they are selling it. This brings serious risks to multiple areas of business,” cautions Metcalf.

What are the alternatives to mulesing?

“The most effective, ethical and sustainable way to help manage flystrike is to combine good management techniques with good genetics. Animal protection groups are calling on producers to raise naturally flystrike resistant sheep, animals who are wrinkle-free, ‘smooth bodied’ or ‘plain’ bodied, and ideally are bare breeched (lack wool around their anus),” recommends the guidebook. Another option is grazing management coupled with the use of less insecticides, making sure the sheep get fresh patches of land to graze in and less treatment with chemicals.

What do sheep farmers have to say?

“I truly believe that my sheep produce far superior wool, more efficiently, than that of the traditional, heavy-skinned mulesed merino. There will always be sheep that are fed high protein diets and that are housed that will produce incredible fleece weights, and this will be promoted as the norm. In reality, I can confidently say that on average, my sheep produce as much, if not more, higher quality wool than the traditional merino when exposed to the same environmental conditions,” says Ashley Penfold of Arcadia Farms who stopped mulesing in 2012 after establishing his own business with his wife Katie.

Philip Attard of Gostwyck Merino has made many changes over the last 17 years, notably the grazing management and animal welfare systems put in place as well as the focus on producing merino wool that is of ‘next to skin’ quality, being 100 percent mules-free since 2005. “We just stopped and learnt the best way to manage, using grazing rotation and applying the science available,” recalls Attard. “And never started [mulesing] again, nor will we ever as the incidence of fly strike is far lower that when we mulesed. The grazing methods employed as part of our advanced grazing systems have helped us to control flystrike. The sheep get a fresh grazing area twice a week, eliminating the problems of sheep camps. We also use less insecticides, a preventative measure to minimise flystrike.”

What should brands do?

“What our extensive research has shown is that flystrike can be managed in pain-free ways, with alternatives to mulesing which provide a whole-body solution,” sums up Metcalf. Four Paws is thus calling on brands and retailers to take the following steps to phase out mulesed wool: First, to download the guidebook (at wearitkind.org/mulesing-guidebook/) to gather information and come up with their own plan. Within six months, they should publish a commitment to end sales within a set time frame. Within 24 months they should start procuring certified mulesed-free wool. And finally, within three months from then, promote their mulesed-free philosophy and the status of their garments to customers.

Photos:1) -3) Four Paws Guidebook Oct. 19; 4) Shutterstock.com