I’m really concerned that PETA campaign about wool and particularly about sheep farms in Australia, and how they use horrific images that are sometimes not real, or taken many years ago and recycled again and again. They misinform people with the kindest intention who trust them- shame on PETA!
Here are some facts about wool mostly gathered from my personal experience and knowledge growing up in sheep country in Australia. I hope it will help counter the misinformation.
A Sheep’s life in Australia
Sheep in Australia live entirely outdoors in rolling countryside with little contact from humans except if they are being moved to better eating grounds or twice a year when they are sheared. They live in flocks and follow their natural character, and they have few predators or worries, thanks to fences and the farmers distantly watching over them.
However, the rams (males) and other young males, are kept in a flock separate from the females (ewes). Once a year when the farmer wants to breed he lets the rams mingle with the ewes for a few weeks, and lets nature take its course. Unlike factory animals around the world, but especially in the USA and UK, Australian sheep also have normal sex lives and have no interference through animal husbandary to reproduce.
The lambs will all be born naturally outdoors within a few weeks of each other and this makes keeping track of the flock easier for the farmer. It’s important to interfer with the sheep as little as possible when the lambs are suckling from their mothers. The reason is that ewes identify their offspring by smell so if the farmer or shearers interferes with the lamb’s smell even a little bit, the mother will reject the lamb and the lamb can’t suckle.
It is very important that lambs suckle from their mother for as long as possible, if they do not suckle within the first few hours after birth the lamb like antibodies that give them immunity and will die within a few days.
A trip to the shearing shed.
Unlike the information in PETA videos, sheep are not usually shorn when there are still suckling lambs and lambs the size of the PETA prosthetic bloody lamb are not shorn. They wouldn’t yet have enough fleece anyway.
Sheep are definitely anxious and some terrified the first few times they are shorn, and some will kick. There is a method of putting your legs to either side of the sheep and supporting their head which seems to be pretty comfortable for them when they relax, and older sheep tend to kick back like they are going to the barber because they seemed to like the process.
I have seen nicks and scratches left by shearers on sheep, but if a shearer is noted to leave a lot more than a few times, he won’t be asked backed. A sheep is too precious, worth more to the farmer than a shearer. One sheep’s fleece in a lifetime could be worth $2,000. Bad shearers exist, but they tend to not stay in the industry long because no one will hire them.
A shearer who purposely hurts a sheep can be prosecuted by Australian law and sent to prison.
Good shearers never leave a nick and scratch, and they tend to be those types of characters that make animals feel calm. The trick of being a quick shearer is to make the animal feel relaxed and cooperate.
Facts and Myths about Wool and Sheep from PETA videos
Sheep can and should live without being shorn. Wrong!
Sheep need to be shorn about once a year or the wool will grow over their eyes so they can’t see, and grow over their anus so they can’t go to the toilet. I’ve seen sheep that were somehow left behind when a flock was moved and were later found in shocking condition because worms and maggots embedded themselves in the wool causing painful infections that slowly kill them. They can also not reproduce with large fleeces that inhibit movement.
Sheep die when being shorn, wool is like fur. Wrong
Wool is not fur and unlike animals that have fur sheep are not killed to give their wool. Given that each fleece is worth around $100 to farmers, they want healthy sheep that can give a lot of fleeces during their life (there natural life is probably around 12 years but can be up to 20).
Wool is the key to the survival of the species as it ensure that they are valuable and will be protected by farmers.
Wool keeps a sheep warm- they should live in cold places. Wrong again.
Sheep originate around the Mediterranean in regions that has a very similar climate to parts of Australia such as Spain and Israel. Water and snow is disastrous for a sheep with a full fleece so in cold climates they must live part of the year in a barn.
Sheep’s wool is greasy enough to deflect the short winter rains of Spain, Israel or Australia, but the rains of England, New Zealand or Montana mean that the woolly sheep needs to be inside for long periods when it snows or rains. Once water penetrate the wool deeply it won’t dry out and will become very, very heavy and rots.
It’s a sheep’s nature to be wild and free. Wrong
Sheep and humans have lived in a co-dependent relationship for thousands and thousands of years. Remember the tales of Jason and the Golden Fleece from Ancient Greece or the bible stories of how ‘shepherds watched their flocks by night’? Long before Jesus wool was being made into fibre and man was protecting the woolliest of the species until they evolved into what we have today. (Interestingly, in the bible while the shepherds watched their flocks, the food they ate was fish and bread indicating wool was primarily for fibre).
If a sheep wanted to be wild and free, a big Australian farm where they are left to their own device for long periods would be the easiest place in the world to escape. But they don’t run away, they stay in more or less the same area the farmer left them until he (or she) comes to move them on to better feeding grounds.
So, what’s the real story with PETA?
People who are really about the ethical treatment of animals should seize the opportunity to help the farmers so that no sheep is sent to market for meat but each animal can live out natural lives being protected by man. (Right now farmers must sell sheep for meat from time to time to pay the bills).
Sheep farming is completely transparent- you can drive less than an hour out of most cities and see sheep grazing peacefully under gum trees, near vineyards, with kangaroos hopping by…. and you can pull up your car and photograph them. Most farmers will let you watch the shearing and take photographs too if you ask. They have nothing to hide yet they seem to be the target of PETA in another hemisphere who are very secretative. I contacted PETA for more information on the shearing sheds they had filmed in and got no response other than Youtube links to the videos I was already questioning.
Wool is the perfect fabric for vegans because no harm is done to the animal to obtain it and sheep bred for wool can live out their entire natural lives grazing in idyllic countryside and will die old animal from natural causes on the slopes where they were born when the best possible scenario plays out.
Here is a video shot in Victorian demonstrating what a shearing shed is really like -and how sheep are shorn and react to sheering.
This is how I remember a sheering shed, the family helping, the little kids running around. (Ironically they are listening to Pink who once made a video for PETA about Australian sheep and then later retracted it when she came to Australian and visited some farms).