NOT mandating pain relief for mulesing will increase calls to ban the practice, with a premature cessation potentially leading to higher levels of flystrike in sheep flocks, according to a leading Australian and international animal welfare researcher.
University of Sydney Emeritus Professor Peter Windsor believes mandating pain relief for the flystrike prevention procedure will improve welfare outcomes for sheep.
“In my opinion, the issue of mulesing without pain relief still occurring needs to be addressed urgently as it is an ‘Australian’ intervention and very damaging to the reputation of Australian wool.”
Sheep Central sought Professor Windsor’s responses to statements by NSW Farmers president James Jackson, who opposes mandating pain relief by regulation. A NSW Bill that would mandate pain relief for mulesing in the state and ban mulesing after 2022 is currently the subject of an inquiry. NSW sheep producers have until 31 July to respond via an online survey , with the inquiry committee set to report by 24 September.
Industry surveys indicate about 85pc of New South Wales sheep producers use pain relief for mulesing and last year 70.47pc of respondents to a NSW Farmers survey supported mandating pain relief through an industry-led initiative and 7.52pc backed its government regulation. Following the survey, NSW Farmers delegates voted to “support the mandating of local anaesthetic/analgesia during mulesing through an industry-led initiative.”
Professor Windsor believes the industry needed to do all it could to ensure the “~15 percent of non-compliance” is addressed for sheep welfare and the reputation of Australian wool.
“If the current situation continues, the calls for the banning of mulesing will continue to grow and there is a danger that premature cessation of mulesing could lead to higher levels of flystrike.”
Professor Windsor’s views have been supported by peak wool grower body WoolProducers Australia. WPA chief executive officer Jo Hall said the body completely agrees with Professor Windsor’s assessment on mandating pain relief for mulesing.
“WoolProducers determined our policy on mandatory pain relief for mulesing in 2018 to try to place mulesing on a firmer footing in terms of retaining the legal ability of wool growers to continue mulesing.
“Mulesing with pain relief is completely defensible as a once-for-life procedure to protect certain types of sheep against breech strike, and in many cases is the single best thing that can be done to ensure good animal welfare outcomes during the life of those animals,” she said.
“Those that are arguing against mandatory pain relief for mulesing are damaging our reputation as an industry as well as jeopardising the right of wool growers to continue mulesing.”
Attributing ‘strong analgesic functions’ to milk is “gilding the lily a bit”
In Sheep Central this week, Mr Jackson has defended the NSW Farmers policy, claiming mandating pain relief by regulation would create a precedent for regulating pain relief for other husbandry interventions on sheep “that hurt them more than mulesing,” including shearing, crutching and tail docking.
The NSW Farmers president also claimed that amino acids in ewe’s milk had “quite strong” analgesic functions.
“I suspect that is gilding the lily a bit,” Professor Windsor said.
“Certainly parturition is accompanied by endocrine events that help minimise the stress (and pain) of the dam and neonate, but the ‘boost’ provided from colostrum is mainly aimed at immunological (maternal antibodies) & nutritional support, not analgesia,” he said.
On Mr Jackson’s statement that: “The reality is that the timing of the operation is more critical to the pain profile of the operation than actually spray-on pain relief”, Professor Windsor said the timing of mulesing has typically been more about management convenience and restraint.
“That is, marking six weeks after start of lambing means most lambs are still relatively easy to restrain and the maternal antibodies from colostrum are in decline, so it is a more appropriate time to vaccinate.
“Yes, Tri-Solfen blocks nociception (pain nerve activation) so prevents the pain cascade from progressing,” he said.
“There is nothing in the milk that remotely resembles the power of blockage of nociception in providing pain relief from wounds.”
Mulesing time more about management – Windsor
Professor Windsor said he did “not really” agree with Mr Jackson’s statement that: “The best pain relief is actually a bag full of milk under the ewe and some of the amino acids (in the milk) have quite strong analgesic functions.”
“Blockage of nociception and/or diminution of sensitization (as with Buccalgesic) are far superior in providing wound pain relief than the comfort provided by suckling and ingestion of milk.
“The amino acids from milk build proteins that enable growth & a healthy immune system that helps healing & fights infection, but not pain relief,” he said.
Mr Jackson also claimed that the mulesing is less painful if it is done four weeks after birth and if it is done after weaning the pain and healing profile of the operation is a lot longer.
Professor Windsor said there is some evidence that mulesing in older animals is more ‘stressful,’ although this was done before pain relief was available.
“The main reason it is advocated to mules in young animals is ease of restraint.
“We have done studies on this age issue as when producers attempt to cease mulesing, they may be confronted with a serious flystrike and need to mules their female hoggets,” he said.
“Now that quality pain relief is available and as long as quality animal restraint is used — eg VE machines or sheep handlers — the issue of age is less important and there may even be some advantages in doing it on older animals, for more accurate determination of extent of wrinkle and need for degree of tissue removal.”
Extensive wounds rare in good shearing
Professor Windsor also disagreed with Mr Jackson’s assertions that shearing and tail docking can hurt sheep more than mulesing.
“Not really, mulesing without pain relief is an extreme intervention.
“Whilst some shearing cuts may be inevitable, good shearers aim to minimise these and in most cases, extensive wounds are rare, although would benefit from pain relief,” he said.
“Ring tail docking is also extremely painful, but as ischaemia occurs within a few hours it is of much shorter duration than mulesing.
“Numnuts manages this well,” Professor Windsor said.
“Hot iron and knife docking also produce some pain, but pain relief spray is effective.”
Professor Windsor said tail docking and shearing are performed routinely in many parts of the world where sheep are raised.
“Whilst there are now moves in many countries (especially the European Union) to minimise these interventions or insist that pain relief is applied, there is global interest in the research led from Australia in this issue.”
He said he had assisted with trials in sheep in Spain with knife tail-docking plus pain relief.
Click here to read a 2013 paper ‘Addressing welfare concerns regarding control of cutaneous myiosis in Australia’ co-authored by Professor Windsor in Small Ruminant Research that included why cessation of mulesing is not always a current option.
In a comment on Sheep Central this week, Mr Jackson maintained that used with or without Tri-Solfen, the healing profile and pain profile of mulesing is superior than if the operations are done after lactation.
“Tri-Solfen gives better pain relief in the first 24-hour block of recovery than milk alone.
“The milk, is of course available beyond the 24 hour that spray-on analgesic works,” he said.
“As it is not always possible to mules in this window, I would advise that timing of painful husbandry interventions are not mandated in regulation, but are promoted as best practice.”