Most sheep are farmed in extensive systems on pasture. However, several million sheep are housed indoors throughout their lives, and some lambs are fattened indoors.
Good husbandry practices, along with good grazing regimes and strong breeds, help ensure that ewes remain healthy and lambs have a high chance of survival.
Smaller flocks cared for by more shepherds means better supervision of the animals’ health and welfare. Provided that they are given sufficient care, “easy care” breeds, which are better able to look after themselves, can have many welfare advantages. They have fewer problems with lambing and are more resistant to fly strike (making tail docking even less necessary). Even so, it is essential that these sheep are given adequate supervision to ensure that any welfare issues are quickly noticed and addressed.
Anesthesia can be used to reduce the pain caused by mutilations such as castration, tail docking, and mulesing. These mutilations are often unnecessary and are not carried out in the highest welfare systems.
Use of preventative medications and breeding could eliminate the practice of mulesing. It is already being phased out in New Zealand and Australia.
In the US, the Animal Welfare Approved program has extensive standards for sheep. Among other requirements, sheep carrying the certification must have continuous access to pasture. AWA prohibits tail docking and mulesing, and only allows castration as a last resort to prevent uncontrolled breeding.
Certified Humane’s sheep standards require pasture access during the grass-growing season. However, castration is allowed between the ages of 24 hours and seven days, and tail docking is allowed as a last resort between the ages of 24 hours and 14 days.
All sheep who are certified USDA Organic must be provided access to pasture but there are no rules on mutilations.
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