More on Please Explain Wool

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Wool was the topic of a Please Explain segment in December, but because winter is not quite over (it’s snowing as I write this), many of us are still wearing scarves and hats and heavy winter coats made of wool, so I'm continuing the conversation. There were a few unanswered questions about wool and about animal cruelty in the wool industry, and Clara Parkes was kind enough to e-mail some answers, which I’ve included below.

What is Mulesing?
“Mulesing was developed to protect sheep from flystrike, which is an extraordinarily painful and brutal condition that essentially involves being slowly eaten alive by maggots. Which, I'm sure most people would agree, is a pretty terrible way to go. The industry has long operated on the belief that the cure is better than the illness, even though the cure (mulesing) comes with its own pain and trauma to the animal.

Boycotts have hurt the Australian Merino industry, which responded by vowing to phase out mulesing by 2010. Unfortunately, they haven't had much luck finding an equally effective (both in terms of cure and cost) procedure to replace mulesing. They bumped the date back to 2013, and then [in late January] Australian Wool Innovation—the industry group tasked with phasing out mulesing—backed out completely. Mulesing is most commonly practiced with Merino sheep because they have unusually deep and abundant folds in their skin, making them much more susceptible [to flystrike].”

What is the quality of life like on sheep farms?
“I can only speak to those animals that are raised for both fiber and meat—the largest flocks of which occupy vast amounts of open space in Australia, New Zealand, the western rangelands of the United States, and South America. Many of these spaces don't even have any kind of fence or boundary, and the sheep are rounded up either the old-fashioned way (on horse and with the help of skilled sheep dogs) or by helicopter. These are not the kinds of factory farmlike conditions we normally associate with cows or poultry.

It's also important to note that all of the newer breeds of sheep that have been selectively bred to grow fine fiber and abundant meat have a fairly high-strung, flock-oriented disposition. Any shock to their system, whether external or internal, can cause a thinning in their fleece, called a "break," which ultimately makes the fleece less valuable on the open market, meaning that the farmer will earn less for those fibers.

So, generally speaking, if a farmer is raising sheep with the intention of making money off its fiber, he or she is naturally motivated to provide as steady and nonthreatening an environment as possible. Factory farming would be the worst possible environment for this. In fact, the finest Merino sheep in Australia—the ones whose fibers end up in Armani suits—are often raised in quite posh surroundings with steady diets of the best grass and grain. Some are even played calming music.”

Are there no-kill farms?
"Just like humans, sheep fibers grow coarser with age. At a certain point, if they were raised just for fiber, they'd stop earning their keep. This is when fiber farmers decide which sheep to keep for breeding purposes, and which ones to sell for slaughter. From here, conditions can go downhill depending on where the animals are going. We've begun to raise public awareness about those animals jammed on ships without food and water and sent overseas. I hope this will change. But the unfortunate reality is that the vast majority of sheep raised en masse for fiber will eventually also be slaughtered for food. The economics of sheep-raising make no-kill farms innately low- to non-profit ventures, since a large portion of a sheep farm's revenue comes from the meat. One farm that has managed to thrive with a no-kill philosophy is Juniper Moon Farm, which offers Cormo wool yarn."

Is shearing painful?
"Shearing can certainly look and sound brutal—these animals are scared, and cuts can happen. Here again it depends on the skill of the shearer and the conditions in which the shearing takes place. I've seen a panicked sheep calm down instantly in the hands of a skilled shearer, sitting still for the entire process—which should, when done properly, only take about three to five minutes. The natural grease on the sheep's fleece and skin (which is later collected and purified into what we know as lanolin) has antifungal and antibacterial qualities that help these nicks heal pretty quickly.

But the fiber does need to be shorn, because modern breeds no longer have the trait to shed their coats naturally in the spring. We need to do it or else the coat will eventually become too heavy and matted for the animal to move freely—picture a sheep unable to move through snow, freezing in place, and eventually starving to death. A rare example is Shrek the Sheep, a New Zealand Merino ram that managed to evade shearing for six years by hiding out in caves."

Here's more about Shrek the Sheep. I recently visited New Zealand, and he's quite famous there!