The main welfare issues affecting sheep are the result of mutilations, lameness, transport, and illness caused by disease. The health problems of sheep are largely treatable or avoidable with good grazing, breeding, and husbandry.
Lambs are routinely subjected to painful mutilations. The Farm Animal Welfare Council states that castration and tail docking of lambs “should not be undertaken without strong justification."
Many male lambs are castrated to prevent breeding, aid fattening, and reduce aggression. Lambs are usually castrated by applying a tight ring or clamp or by surgery. This is normally done without anesthetic.
It is common for lambs to have their tails docked. This is partly to prevent the accumulation of feces around their tails and partly to reduce lesions and infections from flies. However, evidence shows that tail docking is not necessary to maintain the health and welfare of lambs. Tail docking is carried out with a knife, hot iron, or tight ring around the tail.
Mulesing is the surgical removal of sections of skin from around the tail of a sheep, often with no anesthetic causing pain to the animal. Mulesing is often performed on sheep who produce Merino wool in Australia for the purpose of reducing the incidence of flystrike (lesions and infections caused by blowflies). The use of topical anesthetic is becoming more widespread, but it only provides about eight hours of pain relief. The incidence of flystrike can be dramatically lowered by the use of specialized fly traps, chemical treatments, and selective breeding. Through voluntary industry agreements, mulesing has been largely phased out in New Zealand.
Unfortunately, mulesing is still practiced in Australia.. Many retail companies in other countries import Australian wool, including the US, and therefore may be selling wool from lambs who have undergone this painful procedure. In 2009, the leaders of the Australian wool industry backed out on their 2004 promise to phase out mulesing by 2010. Companies in the US and Europe have repeatedly demanded the end of mulesing; most recently, a number of major retailers collectively urged the Australian wool industry to phase out mulesing in favor of alternatives and progress is being made.
Ewes and lambing
Many ewes die during winter and spring because of inadequate grazing, and because their poor body reserves don’t allow them to cope with winter. Many lambs are aborted, stillborn, or die from disease, exposure, or starvation. Multiple births are common in many modern sheep breeds and often result in problems for the ewe during delivery and lambs who are weaker and more vulnerable.
Live sheep and lambs are frequently transported on long journeys around the world. In the US, few protections exist for sheep when they are being transported. In the EU, millions of sheep and lambs as young as four weeks old are shipped on long, international journeys. Often, shippers ignore regulations and do not provide the animals with the rest, food, and water required.
Sheep are regularly transported in overcrowded trucks with insufficient headroom. In hot weather, overcrowding can contribute to poor ventilation, and sheep are often unable to access or use drinking devices.
In the US, both Animal Welfare Approved and Certified Humane (pdf) have extensive standards aimed at reducing crowding and stress for sheep during transport.
You can help by choosing higher welfare alternatives.