Wool Trade

AWEX should get out of wool welfare issues says Olsson

Terry Sim, March 17, 2021

Australian Wool Growers Association director Chick Olsson.

WOOL welfare statements should not be made on the Australian Wool Exchange’s National Wool Declaration, according to New South Wales wool grower Chick Olsson.

And the Australian Wool Growers Association director believes the wool industry should move to change the Australia’s definition of mulesing to conform with international expectations and market preferences on sheep breech modification.

Mr Olsson is well-known as a director of the company that created the surgical mulesing pain relief product Tri-Solfen, and he has regularly defended Australian growers’ right to continue the practice to avoid flystrike, albeit with the use of pain relief.

He is weighing into the ongoing mulesing definition debate as the Australian Wool Exchange conducts its latest National Wool Declaration review.

The review will start and finish this month, with a focus on the breech modification process, sheep freeze branding, which is not currently defined as a ‘non-mulesed’ process on the NWD, because Australian standards define mulesing as being done with shears.

After three rounds of consultation, in April last year the AWEX board unanimously agreed to maintain the NWD’s current definitions for non-mulesed and mulesed wool, which meant growers could nominate wool from freeze-branded sheep as non-mulesed on the NWD. Industry stakeholders opposed an AWEX suggestion that wool from sheep treated with an alternative breech modification method to mulesing be categorised on the NWD as AM – alternative method.

Under the Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Sheep, mulesing is the removal of skin from the breech and/or tail of a sheep using (surgical) mulesing shears. Freeze branding is not done with mulesing shears, but is still regarded by animal welfare bodies and some retailers and brands as a form of breech modification. In New Zealand, where surgical mulesing is banned, it is an offence under the Animal Welfare (Care and Procedures) Regulations 2018, remove the breech, tail skin folds, or tail skin wrinkles of a sheep by any method.

Freeze branding uses liquid nitrogen to cause areas of skin around a sheep’s breech to fall off and because of this Mr Olsson believes it should be called “freeze mulesing”, a term already coined by some animal welfare bodies.

He believes Australia should accept the stance of integrity schemes and welfare bodies that any form of breech modification or surgery intervention is mulesing.

“The fact that it isn’t done with shears doesn’t matter.”

Mr Olsson believes that if Australia, via the National Wool Declaration, continues to define what is known as sheep freeze branding as a non-mulesed process, even with the use of pain relief, it will damage the future reputation of the national clip.

“No-one is going to believe it, and the reputation of the wool and the flock we are trying to aim for — which is a flock that does not need to be touched at all, in line with what is happening in New Zealand — that’s all gone out the window.”

“People who have spent a huge amount of time breeding a plain breech highly productive sheep … it’s all going to be wasted,” he said.

“My view is that we have not talked about these welfare advances (pain relief) loudly and proudly over the last 10 years.

“We have allowed animal rights groups to dominate this debate,” he said.

“It should be up to the government and AWI to educate consumers on how good our welfare practices are.”

Integrity schemes can take over welfare judgements

Mr Olsson told Sheep Central that the Australian Wool Exchange and its National Wool Declaration show bow out of the animal welfare debate by not ruling on the mulesing status of grower’s clips, leaving that to the integrity schemes.

“The market can take it over now.

“The NWD should deal with only the wool attributes that make wool valuable.”

Mr Olsson believes Australia’s marketing of wool “via welfare” is “legitimate insanity”, while the focus of the NWD and promotional campaigns should be on wool’s inherent attributes of softness, comfort, colour, staple length and crimp.

“All the attributes of quality, rather than a surgery.”

Mr Olsson also questioned whether AWEX decisions on the non-mulesed definition issue might be influenced by its ownership of SustainaWOOL and the involvement of AWEX board member and AWN managing director John Colley. AWN is a partner in AgVet Innovations, with freeze branding creator John Steinfort, which is rolling out the process in commercial flocks.

“John Colley and his company are excellent, but for this debate, there is too much closeness.”

From October last year, the SustainaWOOL Integrity Scheme required participants to declare which form of breech modification they apply, but advised it would not classify wool from freeze branded sheep as BLUE (mulesed with pain relief) or GREEN (non-mulesed or ceased mulesed).

Industry should vote on NWD declarations

Mr Olsson believed the issue of NWD non-mulesing definitions should be decided by the whole industry “not seven people on a board.”

“They are not elected by us and for unelected people to decide on the future of the clip and its marketing is actually wrong.

“There should be a national poll as to what is on the NWD and whether people are happy that our wool is marketed by surgery,” he said.

“I don’t believe that AWEX should be able to make such a national decision on behalf of me and 50,000 growers.”

Mr Colley said at any time the definition issue was to have been discussed during the last NWD review he has “absented himself from all discussions and meetings, and declared a full conflict of interest with all parties.”

He said he has not influenced the AWEX board on the issue.

“I have been absented from all discussions during the last 12 months, since we’ve been involved with AgVet Innovations.

“The conflict of interest was raised with the chair and the full board of AWEX right at the beginning of the previous review, and it still stands.”

He said he has not been involved in any consultation with AWEX and AWN would not be putting in a submission to the current review.

AWEX chief executive officer Mark Grave said the AWEX board directors, led by chair Robyn Clubb, took governance and their responsibilities seriously.

“The board has procedures in place to address conflicts of interest, on any issue, if and where they exist.

“As a matter of process, the AWEX board continues to consult widely throughout each review of the NWD, as it has done since its inception in 2008,” he said.

“The 2021 review is no different, with the call for submissions, which opened last week.

“The NWD-IP and SustainaWOOL are independent ISO-certified integrity schemes, operated by AWEX on behalf of the Australian industry,” Mr Grave said.

“The NWD declares the dark and medullated fibre risk and mulesing status.

“While SustainaWOOL requires member growers to complete the NWD, it encompasses a much wider scope of farm stewardship operations including animal welfare, traceability, environmental care & chemical handling, wool preparation, social responsibility and handling/transport.

“Since October 2020, SustainaWOOL has required its members to declare their method of breech modification (mulesing, sheep freeze branding, clips etc), requires provision of effective pain relief when breech modifications are used, and requires growers to declare the method of pain relief applied.”


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  1. Sally Watts, March 18, 2021

    Thank you Jim Gordon for acknowledging the powerful contribution made by my husband Jim Watts to the Australian Merino industry. Jim had his opponents, but then, if you want to be popular, say nothing, do nothing, and be nothing. His staunch clients know who he was and they loved him for it.

    • Ian Burbury, April 12, 2021

      Jim encouraged me to sign up to the UNE Bachelor of Animal Science degree online. I admired him. He made a lot of sense to me.

  2. Simon Gatenby, March 18, 2021

    I agree with this to a small degree. Mulesing is an issue from more than a decade ago when there was no pain relief. Fast forward to today and we have at least three pain relieving options. Buccalgesic for tails/nuts/ear tagging, Tri-solfen for mulesing and Numnuts. Plus, I’m sure, there are others or will be others in the years ahead.

    Surely, this is what we should be selling our wool as, with pain relief or with no pain relief and not mulesed or unmulesed.
    It is ludicrous you can sell unmulesed wool into a premium market, but you haven’t used pain relief at lamb marking. This is dishonest to the consumer, not to mention dishonest to those of us selling wool into the market who are using best practice. And yet this is being done now and what our industry is pushing as the future.

    At least with pain relief being used, consumers know the animals are being well cared for. It should be up to the grower whether they mules or not.

    The National Wool Declaration should be reflective of what pain relief options are being used. Mulesing still could be listed, but pain relief should be the main declaration.

    Are other competing producing countries using pain relief at lamb marking? If not, they should be. Is this where we as the biggest wool-producing country get back to being the best?

    • Jim Gordon, March 18, 2021

      Simon, I totally agree with you that growers should be able to decide whether they mules or not. The welfare issue is mulesing — breech modification — not pain relief or lamb marking. The welfare groups want to stop breech modifications. That’s it.
      Because we as growers have tried to shift the focus onto pain relief to keep doing breech modifications, the welfare groups have jumped on that as well and they are now wanting pain relief used on all practices. We have shot ourselves in the foot. However, the need to remove skin off a sheep’s breech area is the problem. If we can change and breed a sheep that doesn’t need its breech touched we will be left alone.

      • Simon Gatenby, March 19, 2021

        Jim, I’ve been listening to your comments for years. It was an argument that held weight before pain relief. Those days are over. The welfare groups want to end animals being farmed. That is their goal; it’s not just mulesing. So farmers haven’t shot themselves in the foot with pain relief, more so embraced it to show welfare groups we will continue to pursue practices that maximise animal health and welfare outcomes. We need to maintain sheep and beef products are at the top of consumers minds because of how we care for our animals.

        I can’t imagine the wool consumers are happy for you to be tail docking without pain relief. But yet you claim to be best practice because you don’t mules. I’m not, it’s dishonest.

        It’s best practice to mark calves with pain relief, so we should all be moving onto it as a standard for the wool industry and the sheep meat industry as a whole.

        I’ve done it for the past two years with all our lambs.

        Our wool levies have been reduced by 1% so that more than covers the cost of pain relief at lamb marking. Get on board Jim.

        Pain relief is the item that needs priority of the NWD.

        • Jim Gordon, March 19, 2021

          Simon, I wish the levies had been reduced buy one percent. I hope we can get them down to one percent in the next WoolPoll vote this year.
          It is an interesting angle that you are going with. Hide the breech modifications in best practice with pain relief. In all the communications I have had with welfare groups, breech modifications are the problem. I don’t think the welfare groups are wanting to shut us down. I’m not sure you will force the trade to buy best practice with pain relief when you are hiding the elephant in the room.
          It will be interesting how AWEX Will categorise breech modifications with pain relief, as opposed to true non-mulesed wool. This breech modification subject will all be revealed by the trade in time. I’m not claiming best practice. Be carful with the word dishonest.

  3. Jim Gordon, March 18, 2021

    Thank you Chick, for a great article. I was under a vague illusion that the AWEX board was waiting for the scientists to report; however, you have brought reality back. Yes, a very painful decision by the AWEX board to put freeze mulesed wool in with non-mulesed wool, and not to consider the buyer side request of full disclosure. The buyers’ requests are paramount. I have worked hard to have a flock of sheep that doesn’t need to be mulesed. It was a real low blow on the part of the AWEX board. I thought they had more integrity than that. What ever happened to the scientific analysis, it must be close to being released? I am sure they will find as my first-hand experience and research has found. The weight loss for six weeks after and the pain on the day is the same for both types of skin wrinkle removal. The only difference is less blood with the freeze mulesing. The crazy thing in all this, if sheep breeders would only listen to the most hated man in this industry, yet has done more for this industry than anyone else, Dr Jim Watts. Supple skins breed the hard collagen out of your flock and you will eliminate wrinkle. No wrinkle, no need to cut them off. No wrinkle, no need to mules. The big bonus to all this is the eradication of flyblown sheep, as well. What is wrong with humans, that they won’t consider change?

    • Donald Cameron, April 14, 2021

      Jim Watts the most hated man in the wool industry? I think not. Jim was also widely admired and respected, and his legacy will well outlive any detractors.

    • Simon Garenby, March 18, 2021

      So Jim, simple question: do you use pain relief when you mark your lambs? It’s a yes or no answer.

      • Jim Gordon, March 19, 2021

        Simon, no, not yet. I will if it is a requirement of the wool buyer. The wool buyer at the moment, as I understand, is asking for wool from sheep that have had no breech modifications. As I understand, it is the breech modifications that are causing the welfare people to protest outside retail shops. There are millions of lambs marked all over the world that don’t attract attention. As I have said before, this pain relief has come into play because sheep producers want to keep mulesing and hide the fact behind pain relief. This smoke and mirrors caper is endemic in this industry. I use rings at a young age and I suspect there is more pain putting the pain relief in than the actual process of putting the rings on. I put all rings on myself and am extremely gentle.

        • Simon Gatenby, March 23, 2021

          Jim, I use Buccalgesic at lamb marking from discussion with my vet. Drench type applicator inserted in the mouth/cheek. No pain whatsoever in its delivery.

          • Jim Gordon, March 24, 2021

            Simon, yes from our conversations, you have kicked me into gear. I have looked into pain relief as well and I will adopt pain relief from the next lamb marking. I am registered with SustainaWOOL Green standard and would like to be Gold standard. So pain relief will become the go. The lambs will appreciate it as well.

  4. Oliver Cay, March 18, 2021

    As a grower, I encourage AWEX to continue recording attributes of the wool industry other than the physical wool traits. The National Vendor Declaration is the back bone of the meat industry and I see the National Wool Declaration as something similar.

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