Lisa McLennan loves her job in dusty, smelly sheep yards. She is part of a lamb ‘marking’ team, where lambs have their tails docked, are vaccinated and get an identifying ear tag.
- New methods and technologies aim to eliminate pain from livestock procedures like mulesing and castration
- Freeze branding is a non-surgical alternative to the controversial mulesing process
- An engineer has invented a device that injects anaesthetic while docking and castrating lambs
An agricultural scientist and self-confessed animal lover, her role is the most confronting.
Ms McLennan is a mulesing contractor.
She’s responsible for snipping away the wool-bearing skin folds from the tail and breech of the lamb to prevent accumulated faeces and urine that attract flies.
“Basically that’s a flesh-eating fly, so they lay the maggots and the maggots get into the flesh of the animal which eventually leads to the death of the animal,” she said.
Ms McLennan was drawn to her profession by the challenge of making it more humane.
She has taken to a new freeze-branding procedure that is non-surgical and once applied, causes a bare patch around a sheep’s tail.
“Our aim is to eventually eradicate mulesing,” said Ms McLennan, who handles about 150,000 lambs each season.
But she argues until the wool industry can breed flystrike-resistant sheep, most producers have no alternative but to use some form of mulesing.
Controversy over animal welfare
Fly strike costs Australia’s wool industry around $280 million in lost production and treatment costs each year.
Surgical mulesing has been used as a preventative measure against fly strike, especially for merinos, since the 1930s.
But in the last two decades, it has been condemned by animal rights groups as cruel and unnecessary.
That has led to the development of pain relief chemicals, now compulsory, which are applied immediately to a newly mulesed lamb.
Despite recent improvements in surgical mulesing, the procedure is at odds with wool’s image as an elite natural fibre, grown by free-range animals.
Australia is the only country that still allows surgical mulesing.
Woolgrower David Rowbottom from south-west Victoria argues it must cease.
“It’s put the Australian wool industry under the spotlight for the wrong reasons,” said Mr Rowbottom, who hasn’t mulesed his sheep since 1979.
Through careful breeding, Mr Rowbottom has developed a line of sheep that are next to wrinkle-free around the tail.
His ultra-fine wool, among the finest fleeces in the world, goes to elite fabric makers in Italy and Japan.
Processors pay him a premium of up to a dollar a kilogram because his wool is from non-mulesed animals.
Worldwide, there’s a growing chorus of opposition to mulesing.
At least 200 retailers, including Hugo Boss and Australia’s Country Road label, have moved to using only wool from non-mulesed animals in their garments.
Pain relief the focus of new technology
Across the world, more than 100 million lambs are tail docked and castrated, usually by putting a tight rubber ring on the tail and testes.
The animal experiences acute pain for the following hour.
But Scottish design engineer Robin Smith, with the backing of Meat and Livestock Australia, Australian Wool Innovation and the CSIRO, has developed a new product to solve that problem.
The Numnuts device injects an anaesthetic as the docking and castrating ring is being applied.
Animal welfare is top of mind for Lauren and Doug Tindall of Muttaburra in Queensland.
They’ve been using Robin Smith’s device for eight months.
“I think pain-free is what we’re trying to achieve, like vaccinating for tetanus,” Mrs Tindall said.
“We wanted to produce it so that they’re happy and healthy as well.”
Despite the price of using the device, the Tindalls say it is worth it.
“It costs 59 cents for a ewe lamb and if it’s a ram lamb, it’s $1.18,” Mrs Tindall said.
She said she’d still pay even if the price was higher.
“In all honesty a lamb is worth $250 today; even if it was worth $50, you’d still do it,” she said.
Mr Smith is pleased to shed light on the pain involved in lamb castration and tail docking.
“We always felt that this part of lambing was a bit of a skeleton in the farmyard closet,” he said.
“No one really wanted to talk about it, so now we’ve developed a positive solution, one that allows the farmers to do this method for the long-term welfare of their animals, but do it in a humane way.”
Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline at 12:30pm on Sunday, or on iview.