The wool trade: hostage to intransigence

Oct 20, 2020

Animal welfare groups object to the wool industry because of the process of mulesing, a treatment used to protect sheep from fly strike. They argue that mulesing is cruel and invasive regardless of whether painkillers are used. There is, however, an alternative to mulesing that is painless, bloodless and no less protective.

Merino Sheep
Image courtesy National Museum of Australia

Yet the grower/government-funded organisation that exists to serve the interests of woolgrowers, Australian Wool Innovation (AWI), maintains radio silence while the mulesing issue continues to seriously threaten the viability of the industry.

Woolgrowers might reasonable expect the Federal Government itself to push the issue given the fact that the health of the wool trade is very much in the national interest. Surely it wouldn’t want China, which already accounts for 85% of the wool market, to seize upon mulesing as a reason for cutting back on imports.

While Coalition backbenchers have been direct and forensic when examining AWI directors at Senate hearings, for example, upon their elevation to the ministry, such politicians do not always show the same concern for the industry.

Mulesing is a process whereby loose folds of skin or wrinkles in the breech of sheep (lambs at the time) are removed surgically, usually with some form of pain killer. The procedure  protects the sheep from fly strike, particularly in hot grazing regions, where skin folds or wrinkles in the breech may become sweaty and odorous. This condition attracts swarms of blowflies, which turn into maggots, which in turn eat away under the sheep’s skin, causing much pain and distress and, unless chemically treated, early death.

Most fine wool merinos carry from birth these breech folds or wrinkles, so without treatment they would be vulnerable to fly strike. For ages growers have preferred to mules rather than try to keep track of their flocks as they graze over millions of hectares and treat fly strike when it appears. Hardly a practical approach anyway.

In response to the animal welfare campaigns the wool industry has undertaken marketing and promotional strategies to counter consumer resistance to wool products produced from mulesed sheep.

Other efforts to solve the problem include breeding modifications to try to prevent the festering condition. But such breeding processes require several generations to effect significant change. Consistency in the quality of the breed thereafter can be an additional challenge.

Many stud masters and their clients wish to maintain the bloodlines evolved over years, even centuries, so insist on continuing with mulesing. These producers believe the market does not understand the necessity for mulesing, especially when it is done with a certified pain killer (spray) which should alleviate concerns about the procedure. But lurid photographs published by animal welfare groups drown out that message and pressure to desist from mulesing is increasing.

The issue of mulesing should be front and centre with the Australian Wool Innovation (AWI). But its commitment to a solution has been lacklustre at best. Why?

The core politics of AWI, since it succeeded a series of failed woolgrower bodies a decade ago, has centred around suppressing the mulesing issue. Successive board elections have reflected a determination to maintain acceptance of mulesing in the face of pressure to do otherwise. Behind this has been a close collaboration between stud masters of a certain vintage and the promoters of a patented spray-on pain relief product, which have been the key to attempts to make mulesing acceptable or appear acceptable to the public.

AWI features the fact that 86% of growers who mules use analgesics or anaesthetics. However, this carries little weight with consumers or customers in the market.

In its most recent annual report, AWI outlines its work in the area including research on non-invasive management tools to reduce the risk of fly strike. These include a would-be (could-be) vaccine to inoculate sheep against fly strike; breaking the blow-fly breeding cycle; and developing breech modification procedures – without offering any specifics.

You would think that if an acceptable alternative to mulesing existed that ticked all the boxes, the industry would be hearing about it, with applause. But not from AWI.

The treatment is known as Freeze Branding (FB) using liquid nitrogen. It is a technique similar to that used by GPs to remove skin growths such as warts and keratosis from human skin. It causes mild stinging on application but no trauma. When applied to sheep around the breech and tail area it causes the exposed skin to drop off and leave a bare area of stretched scar tissue similar to the effect of mulesing. But there is no cutting of skin or flesh, or blood letting, is involved and the area is protected against fly-strike.

The body responsible for wool selling and quality control at national auctions is the Australian Wool Exchange (AWEX). It requires woolgrowers complete a National Wool Declaration (NWD) at the time of shearing, duly certified, to provide product transparency in world markets. Wool can be declared as Non-Mulesed, Ceased Mulesing, or Mulesed with Painkiller. Back in 2004 the industry committed to phasing out muslesing by the end of 2010 but only 10.8% of woolgrowers have declared they have ceased mulesing, while a further 3.6% have undertaken to do so. A pitiful outcome.

The contested question is whether the freeze branding process qualifies for the purposes of the Declaration as NOT Mulesed or Ceased Mulesed. It should be a no-brainer. Mulesing involves a surgical (cutting) procedure resulting in pain and the shedding of blood, with or without pain relief. Freeze branding is none of that.

AWEX is coming to the view that Freeze Branding is not mulesing and the Declaration can so state that when it is the case.

When the industry has a painless, bloodless technique that is easier to administer and would solve its problem with the market why would it not adopt such an option with both hands? You guessed it. Vested interests in AWI and associated grower bodies who resist change despite mulesing being a threat to the very survival of the industry.

It is argued that the pain aspect of freeze branding has not been scientifically proven. That issue has been with a laboratory for an inordinate amount of time awaiting a definitive assessment. Meanwhile a significant number of growers have adopted the treatment and are completely satisfied with it on the pain issue. It is somewhat ironical (and devious) that when opponents to freeze branding raise the pain issue they conveniently overlook the pain involved in tail docking and the castrating of male lambs, both integral elements of lamb marking.

On several occasions a federal Senate Estimates Committee has examined AWI and its directors, mainly to address governance shortcomings. The minimum the Committee should do is urgently probe the mulesing issue with AWI in the interests of the entire wool trade – woolgrowers, brokers, processors, manufacturers, and retailers at large (including fashion houses), and their customers.

Woolgrowers might expect the Federal Government to be pushing on this given its part-funding of AWI. The relationship of the grower community with the government might be described as sweet and sour. The previous minister, Senator Bridget McKenzie, was very direct when cross-examining AWI directors at Senate hearings as a backbencher but on becoming minister was not so forthcoming.

During Wool Week in August last year, with woolgrowers primed with questions, she pulled out from speaking at the official lunch at short notice and sent along the then very new Nationals member for Mallee, Anne Webster, who kept to script.

Similarly, as a backbencher, David Littleproud was well aware of AWI’s shortcomings but has not shown the same concerns since his elevation to Agriculture Minister.

The government should be following up the unfinished business with AWI.


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