Wool is a special type of hair that is common to sheeps and some other animals, including llamas, alpacas, vicuna, goats and rabbits. Obtaining wool harms animals, and sometimes causes injuries or illnesses that kill them.
Wool is one of many products that is obtained through the exploitation of animals. In fact, the same animals that are used for wool production are also exploited for other purposes. This text will focus on the harms animals suffer for the production of wool, but you can check our text on the exploitation of sheep and goats to see other ways these animals are harmed.
For thousands of years, sheeps have been bred for certain characteristics. One of the most noteworthy characteristics bred into sheeps is that of wrinkled skin, which produces more wool. The extra skin and wool causes them to sweat more, which increases the risk of illnesses and infections.
When the exploitation of the sheeps is no longer profitable, it is common for them to be sent to a slaughterhouse, where their flesh is used for dog and cat food.
Shortly after birth, the ears of lambs are pierced for identification tags, and their tails are cut. A large number of males are castrated without anesthesia. For castration, either a knife or cutting ring is used.
Some of the lambs are sent to slaughter so their flesh can be sold as food. Females are used as breeding machines so the cycle of exploitation can continue. There are numerous varieties of wool, including alpaca, mohair, angora and astrakhan. Wool is commonly used in pants, coats and suits. There are a variety of vegan fabrics that can be used as an alternative to wool such as cotton and synthetic fabrics like cotton fleece, corduroy, polyester and goretex.
Many sheep are victims of diseases, parasites and predators. The most common internal parasites are worms, which are ingested by eating grass and incubate inside the sheep. External parasites include: lice, louse flies (Hippoboscidae), and nose flies (Gasterophilus haemorrhoidalis).
One infection suffered by sheeps is called fly-strike, and is caused by worms that live on their skin. This has led to a practice of shearing made in several countries called mulesing. Mulesing is the process of tearing flesh from the buttocks with pruning shears, creating an area of bare, scarred skin in which worms cannot lay eggs.
There are organizations of farmers and veterinarians who advocate mulesing, claiming it is the only effective way to eliminate fly-strike. Although this is not true, this practice should not be acceptable even if it were the only way to avoid fly-strike. Avoiding such sickness in sheeps should not be achieved through mutilation, but rather through consumers ending their consumption of wool and meat.
Sheeps also face threats from predation. While sheeps have a greater capacity than many other herbivores to defend themselves, many may die after surviving an attack, due to injuries or shock. Their predators are mainly sheep canids (including domestic dogs), and to a lesser extent cats, bears, birds of prey, ravens and wild boars.1
In order to prevent predation of sheep, farmers employ various methods which may include using poisons, traps and weapons to kill predators. Another way to prevent predation is the use of animals such as dogs and, to a lesser extent, donkeys and llamas, which makes these animals victims to wool consumption as well.2
The most common way of shearing sheeps is using powered shears similar to clippers, although scissors are sometimes still used. A non-mechanical method has also been developed for shearing, which involves injecting a protein that creates a natural barrier in the wool fibers. A week after the injection, the wool can be removed by hand.
Shearing is done competitively in several countries such as Australia, Ireland, UK, South Africa, and New Zealand. The competition with the most participants takes place in Wairarapa (New Zealand)3. The speed with which shearing is performed during competition and the transportation of sheep to these events both increase the suffering of these animals.
When it is economically convenient to do so, sheeps used for wool are sent to a slaughterhouse where they will be killed.
Bonacic, C.; Macdonald, D. W. (2003) “The physiological impact of wool-harvesting procedures in vicuñas (Vicugna vicugna)”, Animal Welfare, 12, pp. 387-402.
Chapman, R. E.; Fell, L. R. & Shutt, D. A. (1994) “A comparison of stress in surgically and non-surgically mulesed sheep”, Australian Veterinary Journal, 71, pp. 243-247.
Cockram, M. S. (2004) “A review of behavioural and physiological responses of sheep to stressors to identify potential behavioural signs of distress”, Animal Welfare, 13, pp. 283-291.
Conington, J.; Collins, J. & Dwyer, C. (2010) “Selection for easier managed sheep”, Animal Welfare, 19 (1), pp. 83-92
Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) (1994) Report on the welfare of sheep, London: MAFF Publications [accessed on 14 April 2013].
Fitzpatrick, J.; Scott, M. & Nolan, A. (2006) “Assessment of pain and welfare in sheep”, Small Ruminant Research, 62, pp. 55-61.
Forkman, B.; Boissy, A.; Meunier-Salaün, M.-C.; Canali, E. & Jones, R. B. (2007) “A critical review of fear tests used on cattle, pigs, sheep, poultry and horses”, Physiology and Behavior, 92, pp. 340-374.
French, N. P.; Wall, R. & Morgan, K. L. (1994) “Lamb tail docking: A controlled field study of the effects of tail amputation on health and productivity”, Veterinary Record, 134, pp. 463-467.
Hargreaves, A. L. & Huston, G. D. (1990) “An evaluation of the contribution of isolation, up-ending and wool removal to the stress response to shearing”, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 26 pp. 103-113.
Jongman, E. C.; Morris, J. P.; Barnett, J. L. & Hemsworth, P. H. (2000) “EEG changes in 4-week-old lambs in response to castration, tail docking, and mulesing”, Australian Veterinary Journal, 78, pp. 339-343.
Lee, C. & Fisher, A. (2007) “Welfare consequences of mulesing of sheep”, Australian Veterinary Journal, 85, pp. 89-93.
Parrott, R. F.; Lloyd, D. M. & Brown, D. (1999) “Transport stress and exercise hyperthermia recorded in sheep by radiotelemetry”, Animal Welfare, 8, pp. 27-34.
Phillips, C. J. C. (2009) “A review of mulesing and other methods to control flystrike (cutaneous myiasis) in sheep”, Animal Welfare, 18, pp. 113-121.
Rushen, J. (1986a) “Aversion of sheep to electro-immobilisation and mechanical restraint”, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 15, p. 315.
Rushen, J. (1986b) “Aversion of sheep for handling treatments: Paired-choice studies”, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 16, p. 363.
Rushen, J. & Congdon, P. (1986) “Relative aversion of sheep to simulated shearing with and without electro-immobilisation”, Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture, 26, p. 535.
Rushen, J. & Congdon, P. (1987) “Electro-immobilisation of sheep may not reduce the aversiveness of a painful treatment”, Veterinary Record, 120, p. 37.
Scobie, D. R.; Bray, A. R.; O’Connell, D. (1999) “A breeding goal to improve the welfare of sheep”, Animal Welfare, 8, pp. 391-406.
Scobie, D. R.; Young, S. R. & O’Connell, D. (2005) “Skin wrinkles affect wool characteristics and the time taken to harvest wool from Merino and halfbred sheep”, New Zealand Journal of Agricultural Research, 48, pp. 177-185.
Veissier, I.; Boissy, A.; Désiré, L. & Greiveldinger, L. (2009) “Animals’ emotions: Studies in sheep using appraisal theories”, Animal Welfare, 18, pp. 347-354.
Ward, M. P. & Farrell, R. (2003) “Sheep blowfly strike reduction using a synthetic lure system”, Preventive Veterinary Medicine, 59, pp. 21-26.
Wardhaugh, K. G.; Mahon, R. J. & Bedo, D. (2001) “Factors affecting the incidence of flystrike in sheep: a description and analysis of data from three separate areas in eastern Australia”, Proceedings of the FRICS Conference, Launceston, June 2001 [accessed on 9 June 2013].
Watts, J. E. & Marchant, R. S. (1977) “Effects of diarrhoea, tail length and sex on incidence of breech strike in modified mulesed Merino sheep”, Australian Veterinary Journal, 53, pp. 118-123.
Wemelsfelder, F. & Farish, M. (2004) “Qualitative categories for the interpretation of sheep welfare: A review”, Animal Welfare, 13, pp. 261-268.
Winter, A. C. & Fitzpatrick, J. L. (2008) “Sheep welfare: Standards and practices”, in Aitken, I. D. (ed.) Diseases of sheep, 4th ed., Oxford: Blackwell.
2 Simmons, P. & Ekarius, C. (2001) Storey’s guide to raising sheep, North Adams: Storey.