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.”