Sheep in India are used to produce some of the country’s wool, but Australia produces 80 per cent of the wool in the world. Many people believe that shearing sheep helps keep them from becoming burdened by too much wool. But if left alone, sheep will grow just enough wool to protect themselves from extreme temperatures.
In Australia, just weeks after lambs are born, their ears are punched, their tails are chopped off and males are castrated without being given any painkillers. Extremely high rates of mortality are considered “normal”. Twenty to 40 per cent of lambs die at birth or before the age of 8 weeks, often as a result of cold weather and starvation. Eight million mature sheep die every year from disease, neglect and lack of shelter. One million of them die within 30 days of shearing.
Australian sheep are specially bred to have wrinkly skin (which means they produce more wool per animal). This unnatural amount of wool causes many of the animals to die of heat exhaustion during warm seasons. The wrinkles collect urine and moisture, which encourage flies to lay their eggs on the sheep. Sheep are sometimes literally eaten alive by maggots when the eggs hatch. To prevent this condition, known as “flystrike”, Australian ranchers perform a barbarous operation called “mulesing” in which huge strips of skin are carved off the legs of unanaesthetised lambs. This is done so that the animals will develop smooth, scarred skin that won’t harbour fly eggs. Yet the bloody wounds often develop flystrike before they heal; and even though some believe that mulesing kills more sheep than it saves, the mutilation continues.
Because sheep shearers are paid by volume, not by the hour, many of them work quickly and carelessly. Says one eyewitness, “The shearing shed must be one of the worst places in the world for cruelty to animals. I have seen shearers punch sheep with their shears or fists until the sheep’s noses bled. I have seen sheep with half their faces shorn off”.
Alternatives to Wool
Cotton, cotton flannel, polyester fleece and other synthetic fibres are easy to wash and cost less than wool, and you can buy them without contributing to cruelty.