October 10, 2011

Sheep husbandry - docking lambs' tails

By Dr Clive Dalton

Docking lambs' tails
emoving lambs' tails has been a standard part of sheep husbandry from early times, mainly to prevent the formation of soiled wool or 'dags' sticking to the wool of sheep eating lush pasture. Removing soiled wool or dagging has always been one of the least popular jobs on a sheep farm.

Hill and mountain sheep in Britain for example, and sheep in dry desert areas do not need docking, as their normal diet is made up of dry herbage which does not produce soft faeces which then stick to the wool around the britch.

The other important reason for not docking hill and mountain sheep breeds in cold climates is that the tail protects the udder and rear end and is a said to be a source of fat which the sheep can use in times of poor nutrition.

It is done for these reasons:
  • First to prevent blowflies laying their eggs among the dung and the maggots hatching out and eating into the sheep's flesh. In the worst cases flyblown sheep can die very quickly.
  • Lambs sucking daggy ewes get dung on their heads and this makes them prone to blowfly attack.
  • To prevent the soiled wool from contaminating the clean wool of the sheep with green dung stain which then costs money to scour out.
  • The NZ Shearer's Union requires all sheep put up for shearing to have been dagged. This is to prevent shearers picking up bacterial diseases such as campylobacter and salmonella from the dung.
  • For cosmetic reasons - there's nothing worse than looking at a flock of sheep with rear ends caked with dags.
Consumer concerns
An ever increasing number of people these days think food comes from supermarkets. They have no reason to believe anything else, as they are totally ignorant of what goes on in the production end of the agricultural or horticulture industry.

But they are concerned about animal welfare issues, which they learn about via television - usually when there is a crisis which has good media attraction. The docking of lambs' tails is one of those issues, highlighted by an inquiry I had from a researcher at a major UK supermarket chain, about the tails of New Zealand lambs being too short and causing concern.

NZ Code of Welfare:

Fortunately in New Zealand we’re well covered in the new Animal Welfare (Painful Husbandry Procedures) Code of Welfare 2005 as part of the Animal Welfare Act 1999. Here’s some key points from it.

Minimum Standard No. 4 – Tail docking of sheep

(a) Tail docking of sheep must only be undertaken where there is significant risk of faecal and urine contamination, and/or flystrike, that leads to poor hygiene, health and welfare and/or failing to do so adds a significant cost to the system.

(b) While complying with Minimum Standard 2(a), tail docking without pain relief must be performed when sheep are as young as possible, and not greater than six months of age.

(c). When tail docking a sheep over the age of six months, pain relief must be used.

Minimum Standard 2a says that:

‘Painful procedures must not be performed on newborn animals less than 12 hours old where handling, pain and post-operative complications are likely to compromise survival through impairing maternal bonding and/or colostrum intake.’

Minimum Standards will stand up in a court of law but the Codes also have ‘Recommended Best Practice’ which do not have the legal power of a Minimum Standard. But they are meant to be followed as part of ‘Best Practice’.

Recommended Minimum Standard

For tail docking of lambs, the Recommended Minimum Standard says that ‘when sheep are tail docked, their tails (excluding any wool) should be left long enough to cover the vulva in females and at a similar length in males.’

Why Kiwis dock too short?

If you have ever been in a docking gang on a big farm, you know why. When lambs are coming at you at great speed, you have to hit the right spot on the tail with the hot cauterising iron or the ring pliers without delay. You are not allowed much time to decide which is the correct spot. The greater concern is that you may leave the tail too long, (which will upset shearers later on), rather than dock the lamb too short.

Consumers's concerns must be recognised

But from now on ‘getting it right’ has become an important priority from what folk are thinking and clearly dictating as they push their trolleys around the supermarkets of the world.

It’s no good us thinking shoppers don’t know anything about sheep farming. They don’t. But this is no reason to ignore the messages about buying lamb they are sending via the supermarket checkout.

Stud breeders

These in my view are the worst offenders at docking too short, as it seems that a very short dock, or none at all does a better job of showing off a ram’s meaty rear end.

Damage caused by short docking

Short docking damages the tissues around the anus and can affect the sheep’s ability to defaecate properly hence causing more dags. A lambs tail needs to be long enough to wag!

Lamb tail docks
In your photos you can clearly see the caudal folds with ligaments that run alongside the anus and under the rectum, so when the tail is lifted the rectum is lifted and poo (even runny poo) is directed away from the body. Short tails can't do that and the poo slitters down the back end.

What is the correct length?

Tail ring in correct position on female lamb's tail.
The dock should be long enough to cover the vulva.

Tail ring in correct position on male lamb's tail.
It dock should be a similar length as in the female.

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