AUSTRALIA’S wool industry has been urged to not set a new deadline to end sheep mulesing as Agriculture Minister David Littleproud discusses the issue with industry ‘thought leaders’ in a roundtable today.
Mr Littleproud has called the roundtable to discuss how the industry can work collaboratively to achieve a common approach to industry challenges such as mulesing, and how it can implement Australian Wool Innovation’s Wool 2030 strategic plan objectives.
The roundtable also coincides with the publishing this week of the Australian Wool Growers Association’s animal welfare policy, led by director Chick Olsson, and supporting mandatory pain relief for any sheep surgery.
However, referring to the Wool 2030 strategy’s Pillar 1 statement that “Growers have the confidence and tools to manage flystrike without mulesing,” the association has said it does not support “Wool 2030’s inferred target of industry-wide cessation of mulesing by 2030.”
Animal rights body FOUR PAWS has seen the Wool 2030 statement as an encouraging sign that the industry is ready to transition away from mulesing, but Mr Olsson – while recognising his commercial interest as one of the developers of the mulesing pain relief product Tri-Solfen — is concerned that setting another deadline to end mulesing is “dangerous” for the industry.
Last month, FOUR PAWS wool campaigner Rebecca Picallo Gil told the Wool Connect conference that more than 3000 Australian wool growers are mulesing-free, and various wool assurance schemes can reliably exclude mulesed wool.
“Further, Australian Wool Innovation has announced plans to develop tools to increase wool growers’ confidence and ability to manage flystrike without mulesing by 2030.
“These developments give us confidence that industry stakeholders are more ready than ever to transition away from mulesing,” she said.
“What is needed now is that Australian wool industry stakeholders speak in a unified voice towards wool growers to provide them with a concrete plan and the tools to give them confidence that a transition is possible,” she said.
Referring to the industry’s abandonment of the 2010 deadline to end mulesing, Mr Olsson said this “almost destroyed” the industry and setting even an “inferred” deadline was “dangerous.”
“The biggest thing is we must not repeat the mistakes of the past; it has divided and almost destroyed the industry.
“The only reason someone set a date is because someone said there will be an alternative – the flystrike vaccine,” he said.
“We’re going back to 2006 again, when (Ian) McLachlan (then AWI chair) said there would be alternatives by 2010.
“PETA got a hold of the 2010 deadline, just like FOUR PAWS is getting hold of the 2030 mention of the end of mulesing.”
Mr Olsson said the industry has not learned from the 2010 “debacle” and doubted the industry would have the necessary tools to manage flystrike without mulesing by 2030.
Don’t rely on a flystrike vaccine within 10 years
Mr Olsson does not believe the industry should rely on a flystrike vaccine being available in the next 10 years, pointing out that AWI-funded CSIRO researcher Dr Tony Vuocolo told the Farming Ahead magazine that although researchers are making headway and things look promising: “A potential commercial vaccine is still a way down the track, but we have shown we can produce high antibody levels in sheep against the blowfly.
“Generally, it takes around 20 years for a vaccine to come to market.
Dr Vuocolo said. “I’d love to say we’ll have this one in three to five years, but realistically, it will probably be longer than that. Potentially, 10 years is the ball park. It could be a bit sooner, or it could be a bit longer.”
No industry reputational risk in continuing mulesing
As to whether not setting goals on mulesing would lead the industry into complacency on the issue, Mr Olsson said: “My viewpoint and my understanding is that mulesing is a perfectly acceptable operation that we should use as long as the industry needs to.
“There is nothing wrong with it,” he said.
“There should be no deadline to end mulesing and it should never be mentioned again.
“People should have the confidence to use those tools if they see fit.”
Mr Olsson said because of the COVID-19 pandemic people have had their freedoms severely restricted.
“I do believe more than ever that we have got have the freedom to choose what we want to do on our farms …. and putting a date on things causes a great deal of anxiety.
“In the Merino industry, particularly the guys with sheep with very high wrinkle that produce a lot of gorgeous wool, it really causes a drop in confidence,” he said.
“Surgical mulesing, tail stripping it is not ending … people have just got to get used to it, it’s not ending, stop talking about it.”
Mr Olsson does not believe there is any market or reputational risk for Australian growers to continue mulesing.
“We are still selling all of the wool and they (China) want our raw material and love our product.”
Despite the banning of mulesing in New Zealand, South Africa, Uruguay and Argentina, Mr Olsson said “all the other wool-producing nations in the world don’t have these issues and they have no welfare policies at all.”
He said some of these countries were “getting away with” painfully stripping lamb’s tails and did not have the same farm labour, animal and sustainability standards of Australia.
“That’s the trouble with the Australian industry, we are just too honest.”
A global campaign is needed to support mulesing
Instead Mr Olsson believes the Australian wool industry should embark on a global campaign to educate brands and consumers about mulesing with pain relief, while also promoting the overall sustainability of the Australian wool industry.
“I think we should.
“We were doing it in 2010 brilliantly, but it all stopped and left a vacuum for animal rights groups to attack us.”
Mr Olsson recognised that the growing number of brands and companies that have said they only want non-mulesed wool is good news for non-mulesed wool producers.
“They should get appropriately rewarded for making that switch.”
However, he believes it is “incredibly disingenuous” to claim that Australian Merino flocks could be transitioned to non-mulesing genetics within four years, although he said the industry will struggle to continue to mules “in the short-term” unless it abides by the Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Sheep (see pages 22 and 23), which don’t mandate pain relief.
The world can still be made to understand
Mr Olsson believes with the global trend to regulate pain relief for animal procedures meant there was an opportunity to promote mulesing with pain relief as an acceptable practice to brands, companies and consumers globally.
Mr Olsson said European countries are progressively mandating pain relief for all animal surgeries and in major countries farmers cannot do procedures on animals without the attendance of a veterinarian. He believed if the Australian sheep industry mandated pain relief before it was forced into it through regulation “this would help the industry’s reputation enormously.”
“If they are pushed into it, it would further add to our reputational woes.”
Mr Olsson argues that if pork is still being consumed in Europe after the mandating of pain relief for castration, then wool from sheep mulesed with pain relief would have the same consumer acceptance.
“Yes, consumers get it, when there are surgeries we give them pain relief, it is such commonsense, yet the studs and the non-mulesers have become involved in it and it has become very political.
“Commercial reality has been chucked aside for political speak.”
Olsson is making mulesing an AWI election issue
Mr Olsson is also standing in the 2021 Australian Wool Innovation director election and has built his campaign around defending mulesing, even recently pressuring Mr Littleproud to call out AWI on its stance on mulesing.
Mr Olsson reiterated his “100 percent” belief that Mr Littleproud has told AWI it should defend mulesing, although despite repeated questioning the minister has declined to declare this to Sheep Central.
“AWI should provide the science and tools to support medical procedures that are in line with the expectations of international wool buyers and the community,” Mr Littleproud told Sheep Central last month.
In August this year, after AWI chairman Jock Laurie tolkd Sheep Central that: “The mulesing debate is a debate that the agri-political world needs to take on,” and there was no “absolute clarity” in market feedback on mulesing, Mr Littleproud said in Farmonline he had told Mr Laurie he was “underwhelmed by the commitment and work that had been done on mulesing.”
“It is a matter for AWI to put together the research, the science, the technology that will address what is a medical procedure really and this is one area where we need them to give us the solution.
“That is their responsibility, I made that clear to him,” Mr Littleproud said.
“With respect to markets and how that works in the future, the pressures around mulesing, then that is an issue for industry and government to work through with trading partners but their job is to provide us with the tools to be able to demonstrate that mulesing can be done with animal welfare standards in mind.”
However, Mr Olsson said AWI’s responsibilities on mulesing were similar to Meat & Livestock Australia’s mandate to defend live exports.
“That’s their job, AWI has a mandate to defend our surgical practices, otherwise why is it there? he asked.
“It is pure market failure.
“Why is AWI there if it can’t defend our surgeries?”
But can mulesing be defended?
After reviewing Mr Olsson’s AWI election material, program manager for animal welfare at Humane Society International Australia, Georgie Dolphin, encouraged anyone defending mulesing to “read the room.”
“Animal welfare concerns are not going away and cannot be fobbed off.
“Mulesing is the most painful way to manage flystrike, whereas breeding plain-bodied Merino sheep is the best long-term solution to both mulesing and flystrike.”
Ms Dolphin said the genetic solution to mulesing should be made a priority in flystrike management, and in a transition away from mulesing, pain relief should be mandatory “across the board”.
“The fact that pain relief is not mandatory for lambs undergoing the painful mulesing surgical procedure throughout all of Australia is appalling.
“But good luck trying to persuade animal welfare conscious consumers that mulesing with pain relief applied post cut, i.e. once the pain has already been inflicted, is the long term solution to their concerns, when breeding is a better alternative to mitigate flystrike altogether,” she said.
“Breeding resistance to flystrike should be the industry’s goal.”
“There was a commitment to phase out mulesing by 2010 but now, more than a decade later, we’re still debating it,” she said.
“The longer this issue remains unresolved, the more negative attention the wool industry attracts.
“It is inevitable that animal welfare concerns will reach more brands and consumers, affecting their purchasing decisions.”