As with most widely used animal-based products, wool production and sheep farming come with major animal welfare issues. Most sheep live in extensive production systems and stay outdoors permanently. However, intensive farming, where animals are kept indoors permanently, is also practised, leading to various animal welfare issues. Mutilations, that are practised in sheep production systems (e.g. tail docking, castration, mulesing) are not always necessary and are often very cruel. Sheep are sometimes transported over long distances to be slaughtered in other countries, with weaker (less animal-friendly) legislation or enforcement. Slaughtering sheep without adequate stunning methods is also of concern.
Like other farm animals, sheep are subjected to a number of painful mutilations, that adapt the animal to the husbandry system, instead of vice versa. Besides mulesing in Australia, there is tail docking, where the tip of the tail (or the whole tail) is removed, without anaesthesia during the procedure or with any pain relief after it, even though a simple solution exists – breeding of sheep with short tails. Male sheep are also subjected to painful castration procedures, again performed without anaesthesia, and female sheep are sometimes artificially inseminated laparoscopically, which is very painful for the animal.
Long-distance transport of sheep
Sheep are often transported over long distances to be slaughtered in other countries, with weaker and less animal-friendly legislation or enforcement. In particular, animals are usually transported for several days and weeks in disastrous conditions. Numerous animals sustain serious injuries and quite regularly animals die a torturous death during the journeys.
In November 2019, a vessel loaded with 14,000 sheep capsized on its way from Romania to Saudi Arabia, leaving the sheep to die. FOUR PAWS and its Romanian partner organisation, ARCA, were able to rescue 254 animals, out of which 180 survived. These sheep are the lucky ones, and a constant reminder of the millions of farmed animals that keep suffering as long as live transports exist. Read more about this mission here.
Separation of lambs from their mothers
Sheep, that are also used for the production of dairy products, are separated from their young soon after giving birth – just as dairy cows and their calves are separated. This causes severe welfare issues for the animals and should not be allowed, with mother-bounded rearing becoming the standard in the dairy industry for all animals.
When a sheep and her lamb are separated right after birth, there is no mother-child bond established. If they are allowed to stay together for a certain time, but still weaned too early, then this can lead to serious animal welfare relevant reactions. Due to lack of child-mother-contact, behavioural disorders can occur, with signs of extreme mental suffering, which can lead to physical impairment, e.g. serious loss of weight (emaciation).
Therefore, all lambs must be reared for a period of at least 45 days (90 for meat lambs) and given an opportunity at least twice a day to complete a natural suckling process and then engage in social behavior with their mother. At least during the first seven days of life, mother and lamb must be kept together and if they are separated afterwards, the mother and lamb must be able to have visual and physical contact until they are weaned, which should take place gradually, over a period of at least one week. From the 8th day of life, the lambs must also be kept in groups – no single keeping of animals should be allowed.
The end of cruel practices:
they are inducing fear, pain and distress, thus diminishing the immune system, altering brain function and the natural behaviour of animals.
- Mulesing: mulesing-free wool should become a standard worldwide, as it can easily be replaced by less cruel alternatives.
- Ban on painful mutilations: Like other farm animals, sheep are subjects to painful mutilations.
- Ban on the separation of lambs from their mothers: Sheep that are also used for the production of dairy products, are separated from their young.
- Higher standards regarding transport: Various abuses are known, such as dehydration due to lack of water supply, diseases, and injuries to the animals due to rough handling. Long distance travel (more than 8 hours) should therefore not be allowed, nor should it be allowed for animals that are not weaned yet. Read more about our demands regarding live animal transport here.
- Highest regulations on slaughter in all world countries: sheep are often transported into countries that have a weaker and less animal-friendly legislation or enforcement.
Fulfilment of basic needs:
If neglected it leads to poor welfare states and therefore to suffering, acute pain, distress, fear, and long-term negative welfare states. Basic needs of sheep are:
- Sheep are a social species and must be kept in stable groups – no individual keeping should be allowed, with lambs having access to their mothers and male sheep should be separated in a different group once they reach maturity (3 months).
- A diet of quality grazing material is not only essential for maintaining their physical health, but also gives them the possibility to express their natural behaviour of browsing for food.
- The animals should be kept in dry outdoor climate stalls (open front deep litter stalls) with a permanently accessible, paved and sure-footed running yard; or if kept outside, they must have a shelter in place that gives protection from extreme weather conditions with readily available water and food.
- Regular, but animal-friendly shearing of wool, as the animals do not shed their fur naturally, therefore the establishment of a good human-animal relationship is crucial for the wellbeing of animals, otherwise the shearing process is fear and stress-inducing.
- Animals should be kept in good health, get parasite treatments and receive veterinary care if needed, with regular inspection of feet as they are prone to foot rot.