Mulesing is a practice in which sheep have large strips of wool-bearing skin surgically removed near their buttocks to reduce the risk of infection from fly-strike, a life-threatening infection caused by a parasitic fly. Fly-strike is common in wet, hot areas such as Australia, the only country that still practices mulesing regularly on over one million lambs each year, even though most other countries have already banned the cruel procedure. Fly-strike can occur when an animal who is soiled with urine and feces comes into contact with a female parasitic fly carrying eggs. She lays the eggs on the sheep’s rear end and about eight hours later the larvae begin to hatch. They then proceed to tear at the skin, causing sores. The larvae tunnel through the hosts tissue and literally begin the eat the animal alive.
But how did sheep combat fly-strike before humans were here to “help”? Sheep have been selectively bred throughout the centuries with an emphasis on wool density and thickness. Compared to their wild ancestors, who only grew the amount of wool they needed, the domestic sheep of today suffer certain health risks that would never have developed so commonly had humans never tampered with their genetics.
Mulsesing is done to lambs under one year of age because the area that must be removed is much smaller while the lambs are young, and is thus thought to be less painful than if it were done to an adult sheep. Because of the severe pain inflicted during the mulesing procedure, anesthetics are encouraged, though not required by law. Sheep are restrained in a device that holds their head and limbs, while a certified mulesinger carries out the barbaric task. This is very stressful and painful for the baby sheep, who are having an area of skin the size of a dinner plate ripped from their flesh. The wounds take about four weeks to heal, and during those four weeks lambs are at high risk of contracting tetanus as well as fly infestations due to the open wound. Once the wound is healed, scar tissue forms which stops wool growth in that area and thus stops the risk of fly-strike.
Alternatives to mulesing include crutching on a regular basis, which is simply the shaving of sections of wool from an animal. As long as it is not done in a rush, this is a perfectly humane alternative to mulesing. There is no blood, no pain, and no permanent mutilation. The reason this is not done by many farmers is because it is too time consuming, and involves regularly checking up on the well-being of the animals, which is something many farmers would rather not concern themselves with. Crutching is nevertheless still just as exploitative as mulesing. Sheeps wool is not ours to take.