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The Truth about Sheep Farming

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Of all the farmed animals exploited and killed, sheep may arguably be the gentlest.

 

These kind and sensitive beings form deep bonds with their flockmates. Sadly, the loyalty sheep show towards their flockmates is often mistaken for a lack of intelligence. People will often use “sheep” as an insult towards people who blindly follow, stick with the crowd, or don’t think for themselves. In reality, sheep’s tendency to stick together stems from an ability to form lifelong social bonds and a reliance on one another for safety as prey animals.

Sweet, trusting Gigi leans on her friend Conor during a health check. Most sheep are gentle animals.

Like us, sheep are capable of remembering knowledge and experiences. Sheep are estimated to be able to memorize at least 50 individual faces. One study indicated that sheep can remember a complex maze for up to 22 weeks. 

 

You know that cute little happy dance and furious tail wagging your dog does when they see their leash? How about the purring and meowing that starts when you crack open a can of cat food? Just like our beloved companion animals, sheep can also become excited when expecting a positive event. They use their bodies, including facial expressions and ear positioning, to communicate this to their friends.

 

These perceptive animals can even recognize fear in another sheep’s facial expression. Sadly, on sheep farms and ranches, there is no shortage of it.

 

A newborn lamb’s life begins with terrifying odds. Most sheep are raised on open pasture, which many people assume means they must be happy. In reality, it means exposure to the elements and predators. Because sheep bred for their wool and flesh tend to have multiple lambs, many are unable to nurse all of their young. The “excess” lambs are so common that they have been given a name by the industry: “bummer lambs”. 

 

In the United States, 388,000 lambs (12%) born die within two weeks of life. In Australia, 25-35% die within a few days or weeks. Most deaths are due to infection and hypothermia. Countless lambs starve to death. Bottle feeding these lambs would be too time consuming and expensive for a farm. Plus, it is common for farmers to want only the strongest to survive and breed in the future.

Sweet infant lambs who came to us last year from another sanctuary. The lovable newborns were left to die as “bummer lambs” and would have died in the elements.

The surviving lambs will be met with a set of painful mutilations. Male lambs will be castrated with no anesthesia. All lambs will have their tails cut off. This is done because urine and feces can accumulate on the underside of lambs’ tails and cause infection when they are not properly cleaned. Ranchers generally have far too many sheep to be concerned with cleaning their tails. The industry solution is to simply cut them off. This can be done using a hot blade or knife, cutting straight through the muscle and bone. Some farmers claim to use a more“humane” method which involves tightening a rubber ring around the tail until lack of circulation causes the tail to fall off. Does this sound humane to you?

 

Sheep are bred by humans for three primary reasons: their milk, their flesh, and their wool. 

 

Those bred solely for their flesh will be slaughtered between just 6-8 months of age. These lambs are only babies.

 

Sheep used for wool will go on to have longer lives- but not good lives. Many people assume wool to be a harmless industry because domestic sheep have to be shorn in order to be comfortable. But this is only one side to the story.

 

The reason that modern sheep produce so much wool is because of generations of selective breeding. Their wild counterparts shed their fiber naturally with the seasons. Merino sheep are the choice breed for wool production.

Merino sheep are bred for excessive wool. This leaves them far more likely to experience health issues.

The excessive layers of wool these sheep form cause skin folds or  wrinkles. These wrinkles make an appealing place for flies to lay their eggs. This is called flystrike, and it is incredibly common on farms. When the eggs hatch, the maggots will begin to devour the sheeps’ flesh, causing a painful open wound. One common method of preventing this is called mulesling. Lambs will have large strips of skin at the base of their tail cut from their bodies.This is done using metal shears and is incredibly painful. Again, this is done without sedation or pain relief.

 

Although New Zealand has banned this cruel practice, it is still extremely common and legal in Australia. Australia is the world’s top wool producer, supplying 50% of the world’s wool.

Commercial shearing is very different from sanctuary shearing. With so many sheep to shear, work is often rushed, leaving knicks, cuts and wounds.

Because the demand for wool is so high, these sheep continue to be bred to produce higher and higher volumes of wool. Profit, not animal health, is their top priority.

 

If a sheep lives to five or six years old, their wool will become thin and brittle with age. At this point their wool is no longer profitable. After a lifetime of suffering on behalf of humans, they won’t be rewarded with a gentle retirement. Instead, they are sent to slaughter.

 

Sheep are prey animals, and are some of the flightiest farmed animals. They are easily stressed, and new events can be very frightening for them. The trip to slaughter is terrifying. Packed into a crowded stock trailer, sheep can overheat as they begin to panic. 

 

There are no U.S. laws restricting “livestock” transport in extreme weather conditions. In fact, it is legal in the United States to transport animals used for food for 28 consecutive hours, with no food, water or rest. In Australia, sheep can be deprived of water for 48 hours prior to and during transport. 

 

After a long and exhausting truck ride, sheep find themselves in a slaughterhouse yard full of countless unfamiliar sheep. They are herded into a single file line on the kill floor. Separated from their flockmates, they are unable to follow their instinct of sticking together for safety. This is likely stressful and confusing.

Every sheep’s final destination: a crowded and frightening truck to slaughter.

Whether a sheep’s “purpose” was a wool sweater, milk for parmesan cheese, or a holiday dinner does not matter now. Both six month old lambs and adult “wool sheep” will find themselves in the same frightening place. They all meet their end in the same way.

 

Animal Place strongly encourages our supporters to eliminate sheep products from their diet and wardrobe. Refusing to buy wool or eat sheep flesh or dairy can help prevent this needless suffering. Please choose compassion.

Written by Chelsea Pinkham