By Dr Clive Dalton
The American breeders who put the wrinkles on the Merino more than 100 years ago to grow more wool could have had little idea about what suffering they would cause the sheep, or the public issue it has turned out to be. Mulesing, first described by J.H.W. Mules in Australia in the 1930s looked like a solution, and is still used in parts of Australia and on a small but unknown proportion of New Zealand Merinos.
Few could have predicted the massive international backlash to mulesing by people who want a guarantee that the garments they buy are from wool from sheep that have not been mulesed. Australia plans to ban the practice by 2010 and New Zealand Merino farmers are expected to follow this programme.
Technically, to mules a sheep the Australian way you take a pair of short-bladed hand shears, pull the woolled skin up and cut off a slice on either side of the perineum which is the bare skin under the tail. A slice is also taken from each side of the docked tail. Farmers can do it themselves, and it does not need to be done under veterinary supervision or with anaesthetic. When the wound heals it grows skin with no wool so faeces and urine contamination are avoided – and so are the blowflies. The technique used in New Zealand is a less-severe and is a modified version of that used in Australia.
To avoid creating an open wound, a clip has been developed in Australia which is about 10cm long and is clipped on to the folds around the sheep’s anus that would normally be cut off. The clip cuts the blood supply and the flap withers and falls off within a few days, leaving a bare area and a thin scar line. It is claimed to be much less stressful than the cutting the folds off.
Why is it allowed?
So if it’s so gruesome an operation, why is it allowed? The rationale is that the pain and suffering of mulesing is a lot less than the agony of a slow death from being eaten alive by blowfly maggots. This case only applies to Merino sheep that graze the inaccessible high country maybe until they are 7-years-old or older and regular checking and treatment for blowfly attack is not possible.
NZ Recommendations and minimal standards
So whether you are for or against mulesing, the practice is currently legal in New Zealand but with some very specific minimal standards under the Sheep Code of Welfare. Here they are. Note that the word “must” is a legal requirement and a “should” is a recommendation:
- Non-surgical (i.e. chemical) mulesing must not be carried out.
- Surgical mulesing must not be carried out unless all of the following conditions are met:
- The sheep are Merino or Merino-dominant types.
- The sheep are destined to be farmed in extensive farming systems where there is a high risk of fly strike.
- It is probable that no other flystrike preventive measure or combination of measures is likely to be effective.
- The process is carried out by competent operators using clean sharp mulesing shears.
- No more skin is removed than is necessary.
- Sheep should be done before they are 12 weeks old.
- Antiseptic should be applied to the wounds and insect repellant around them to prevent infections after the surgery.
- Even with all these conditions, mulesing may be carried out only until practical and effective non-surgical methods of flystrike control become available. For the sake of the sheep, let’s hope this is soon!
- With so much recent negative international publicity against the practice, it would pay anyone still doing it to review their farming practice and give mulesing away for the sake of our New Zealand clean, green and humane image.
This material is provided in good faith for information purposes only, and the author does not accept any liability to any person for actions taken as a result of the information or advice (or the use of such information or advice) provided in these pages.