The wool trade: a long-time hostage to intransigence

Andrew Farran, October 26, 2020

Western District wool grower Andrew Farran.

WOOL growers and Australian Wool Innovation should get behind the proposed mulesing alternative – sheep freeze branding, according to Western District wool grower Andrew Farran.

In this article, Mr Farran shares his views on mulesing, pain relief and breeding for plain-bodied sheep, but highlights that the reluctance of stud masters and clients to change blood lines has kept mulesing in “the realm of accepted practice.” He also addresses what he feels has been AWI’s lacklustre performance on the issue.

FOR some decades now the wool industry, at home and abroad, has been imperilled by a hostile animal welfare campaign that has effectively penetrated the retail end of the apparel market.

This has also adversely affected the earlier stages of processing and manufacture, with potentially devastating consequences for the financial viability of wool growers and the industry overall.

The objection is to mulesing, a process whereby loose folds of skin or wrinkles in the breech of sheep — lambs at the time — are removed surgically, usually with some form of pain killer being applied. The purpose of the procedure is to protect the sheep from fly strike, particularly in hot grazing regions and in humid weather where skin folds or wrinkles in the breech may become sweaty and odorous. This condition attracts blowflies which turn into maggots which in turn eat away under the sheep’s skin, causing much pain and distress, and unless chemically treated, early death.

In response to these campaigns, the wool industry has undertaken various marketing and promotional strategies to meet or counter the resulting consumer resistance to wool products produced from mulesed sheep and to alter public perception in that regard.

Given that most fine wool Merinos carry these breech folds or wrinkles from birth, without treatment they would be vulnerable to flystrike. For ages, growers have preferred to mules rather than keeping track of their flocks over millions of hectares to catch and treat when fly strike appears. Hardly a practical approach anyway.

Efforts to overcome the problem have involved breeding programs to tighten the skin around the breech so that a festering condition is prevented. As such, these breeding processes require several generations to effect significant change, so time is a problem. But success can be achieved, as seen in the plainer bodies of the sheep on display at today’s sheep shows. Consistency in the breed thereafter is an additional challenge.

Speed-breeding can have unintended consequences

Such speed breeding programs may have unintended consequences such as loss of fineness in the fleece or loss of strength in the staple. Genetic complications can also compromise the breed’s general resilience. As for the fineness issue this can be offset commercially thanks to technology that now permits a ‘fine wool’ garment to be manufactured from coarser wools.

Given that many stud masters and their clients wish to maintain their blood lines evolved over many years, even centuries, they still insist, for this and other traditional reasons, on continuing with mulesing and to keep it in the realm of accepted practice. These producers believe the market does not understand the necessity for mulesing, even generally, because they are utilising it with a certified pain killer (spray) which should, they say, alleviate concerns about the procedure. But that message is not going over too well and the pressure to desist from the practice is increasing. Meanwhile, lurid photographs exhibited by the animal welfare groups tell another story.

Some Merinos, a minority, do not necessitate the procedure as they possess loose, not tight, skin formations which grow longer, finer staples. Attempts at replicating that formation on a wide scale through breeding have been equivocal to date.

Mulesing should be ‘front and centre’ for AWI

The mulesing issue, one way or another, should be front and centre with the grower/government-funded organisation that exists to protect and promote the industry, namely Australian Wool Innovation (AWI). But its commitment to a solution or better still an alternative to mulesing has been lacklustre at best. Why might this be so?

The core politics of AWI, since it succeeded a series of failed wool grower bodies a decade ago, has centred around the mulesing issue. In short, to suppress it as an issue. Successive AWI board elections have reflected at their heart a determination to maintain acceptance of mulesing in the face of pressure to do otherwise and to handle it so that it would fade away as an issue and divert attention elsewhere. Behind this has been a close collaboration between stud masters of a certain vintage and the promoters of a patented spray-on pain relief product that has been the key to attempts to make mulesing acceptable or appear to be acceptable to markets and the public.

AWI features the fact that 86 percent of growers who mules use analgesics or anaesthetics. However, this carries little weight with consumers or customers more widely. Also the reported data indicates that only 40pc of the wool offered at auctions is declared as such.

To illustrate the current position. In its most recent annual report, AWI outlines the work it is undertaking in the area including research on various non-invasive management tools to reduce the risk of flystrike. These include a would-be (could be) vaccine to inoculate sheep against fly strike; breaking the blow-fly breeding cycle; and without any specificity developing breech modification procedures.

No ‘blood-letting’ with freeze branding

Yet if there were already an acceptable alternative to mulesing that ticks the boxes, the industry might be hearing about it, with applause. But not from AWI.

The treatment concerned is known as Freeze branding and uses liquid nitrogen. It is a technique similar to that used by family GPs to remove skin growths such as warts and keratosis from human skin. I believe there is no perceptible pain, which is similar to the sensation when cold steel is pressed on skin. Certainly no trauma.

When applied around the breech and tail area the exposed ‘freeze-branded’ skin will drop off and leave a bare area of stretched scar tissue similar to the effect of mulesing. No exposed skin, no cutting of flesh or blood-letting is involved. The area is thereafter protected against fly-strike. Growers have reported that there is no setback in condition and the lambs continue to gain weight as would be normal.

The body responsible for wool selling and quality control at national auctions is the Australian Wool Exchange (AWEX).

It requires that wool growers complete a National Wool Declaration (NWD) at the time of shearing, duly certified, to provide product transparency in world markets. Wool can be declared as Non-Mulesed, Ceased Mulesing, or Mulesed with Pain Relief (AA).

Back in 2004, the industry collectively committed to phasing out mulesing by the end of 2010, but that deadline has long since passed. Currently only 10.8pc of Merino wool growers have declared they have ceased mulesing while a further 3.6pc have undertaken to do so. A pitiful outcome.

The contested question is whether the freeze branding process qualifies, for the purposes of the NWD, as Not Mulesed or Ceased Mulesed. It should be a no-brainer. Mulesing involves, as defined, a surgical (cutting) procedure resulting in pain and the shedding of blood, with or without pain relief. Freeze branding is none of that. AWEX is coming to the view that freeze branding is not mulesing and the declaration can so state that when it is the case.

Why has freeze branding not been adopted?

When the industry has at hand a painless, bloodless technique that is easier to administer and would solve its problem with the market, why would it not adopt such an option with both hands?

You guessed it. Vested interests in AWI and associated grower bodies who resist change in spite of mulesing being a strong negative in the market and an ongoing threat to the viability, even survival, of the industry. Logic doesn’t seem to come into it. Nor rationality.

It is argued that the pain aspect of freeze branding has not been scientifically proven. This is currently being laboratory tested, though an inordinate amount of time is being spent awaiting a definitive result. Meanwhile, a significant number of growers have adopted the treatment for their sheep and are well satisfied with it on the pain issue, and as to subsequent condition and weight gain.

FB opponents overlook  castration and tail docking pain

It is somewhat ironical and devious, that when opponents to freeze branding raise the pain issue they conveniently overlook the pain involved in tail docking and the castrating of male lambs, both integral aspects of lamb marking.

The situation is very serious if an acceptable alternative to mulesing is available and is not supported by the very body that exists for this and related purposes.

A Commonwealth Senate Estimates Committee has examined AWI and its directors on several occasions, mainly to address shortcomings over governance. If the committee doesn’t do anything else from now, it, together with other interested bodies, should urgently probe the mulesing issue with AWI in the interests of the entire wool trade – wool growers, brokers, processors, manufacturers, and retailers at large — including associated fashion houses — and their customers. AWI would not need this prompting if it were doing its job at this critical time.

Government should address unfinished AWI business

Wool growers might expect the Federal Government to be pushing on this given its part-funding of AWI. The relationship of the grower community with the government might be described as sweet and sour. The previous minister, Senator Bridget McKenzie, was very direct when cross-examining AWI directors at Senate hearings as a backbencher but on becoming minister was not so forthcoming.

During Wool Week in August last year, with woolgrowers primed with questions, she pulled out from speaking at the official lunch at short notice and sent along the then very new Nationals member for Mallee, Anne Webster, who kept to script.

Similarly, as a backbencher, David Littleproud was well aware of AWI’s shortcomings, but has not shown the same concerns since his elevation to Agriculture Minister. The government should be following up this unfinished business with AWI.


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  1. Dirk Stevens, October 27, 2020

    Absolutely spot on Jim Gordon. Do whatever you like; however, own up to your actions with transparent declarations and let the market decide. AWEX must give the freeze branders their own box to tick. In any other industry this decision would be a gimme.

  2. donald cameron, October 27, 2020

    Times change and time for a change.
    there was no income tax or driver’s licence, when Grandpa was a boy,
    the sun never set on the British Empire, the largest empire in history.
    and there was no mulesing.

    There was still no speed limits when dad was young
    but World War 1 had killed 20 million and another 70 million were soon to die in WW2
    Mulesing had been invented, but not yet the atom bomb.

    When I was young, gay meant happy, greens meant vegetables and fireworks were fun. Australia had a large manufacturing industry and made the fastest four-door production sedan in the world, the Falcon GTHO Phase III.
    The practice of mulesing continued to spread.

    Today we see things our forebears could never have imagined.
    There are driverless trains, robotic dairies, the internet, social media, email, and eBay.
    Asteroids are intercepted and horizons filled with wind farms,

    The runaway growth of certification and compliance
    and the ever-growing raft of rent-seekers, profiting from
    the ever more onerous form-filling.

    Farmers at Boorowa, Ballarat and Boyup Brook seen in milliseconds by unknown thousands in Boston, Brussels and Berlin.

    Times change, markets change, consumers change,
    It’s all about supply and demand, we supply what the consumer demands.
    Mulesing is now widely condemned by consumers.

    • Jim Gordon, October 27, 2020

      Donald Cameron, bloody brilliant. There are some very smart people around, real thinkers. If we can connect everyone and take this industry forward, the industry will win.

  3. Peter Small, October 27, 2020

    John Buxton, I disagree with your assertion. It is possible to argue your case and succeed with the animal rights groups, but you must have a position that is defendable. And you must listen to the other points of view and engage in respectful dialogue. In respect to mulesing, our position has been indefensible.

  4. John Buxton, October 26, 2020

    If you think that you can appease the animal activists by giving into their demands your are seriously mistaken. Wake up to their real motivation and that is the end of all animal livestock industries. Their strategy is to kill us off with one campaign at a time. Mulesing is the issue now, then it will be tail docking, then ear marking and then shearing, until the cost of business or compliance is so high we are no longer viable.

  5. Peter Small, October 26, 2020

    Thanks for your perspective Andrew. As the first exporter of large quantities of SRS type wools out of Australia, I understand the arguments of the “purists”, but may I plead with everyone in the Australian wool industry to look at this whole issue from a total industry viewpoint, not through the lens of our various vested interests. Australia is the supplier of most of the world’s greasy wool for apparel wear and that should be our first focus.
    We must be proud of our capacity to produce quantities of consistent wool types, across many environmental settings and different bloodlines. We should be proud of our robust wool harvesting, wool testing, selling, logistics and delivery systems. They are second to none in the world. If the consumer is going to enjoy wearing the beautiful fabrics and knitwear made and designed from wool, they need Australian wool.
    In recent times, the consumer, particularly those with high disposable incomes, have developed a desire to know the provenance of the food they eat and fibre they wear. And how the animals that produce this fibre are cared for.
    In this respect too, Australian wool growers have a proud record, particularly when compared with industrial farming systems in the Northern Hemisphere. The Merino for example, has an idyllic life. Lambs live with their mother until natural weaning and are not removed at one day or one week old, as in other industrial farming systems. The Merino is well feed and watered in a benign climate. Ours have the joy of lying under big red gum trees on a hot day; what better?
    However, the practice of mulesing has given animal rights groups a great opportunity; something they relish. Here, we as an industry have failed. We have failed to act swiftly to address a serious problem. We have failed to grasp that a procedure that we believe is in the best interest of the animal is not acceptable, because of the blood and the pain, to the eye of the consumer.
    I am convinced the most important objective for Australian wool growers today is to increase the supply, as fast as possible, of non-mulesed wool and by whatever means possible.
    How the offending skin is removed from the breech of a sheep; by breeding, dry ice, inoculations or some still unknown magic wand, it should be embraced by all of us.
    The objective is to satisfy the consumer with no blood and as little pain as possible. No procedure with a sheep is without some stress or pain whether it be drenching, shearing, foot pairing, inoculation or even rotating to a different paddock.
    What we have got to do is to strive to convince the consumer — not the animal rights activists nor the multitude of certification rent-seeking organisations who have sprung up around all this — that our sheep are no longer inflicted with mulesing. No blood and little or no pain.
    We will never ever satisfy these rent-seekers. What we must do is gain a position of strength so that we can, as an industry, vigorously stand, argue and defend our case, direct and unfiltered to the consumer.
    This we can achieve, together with our processing partners, down the pipeline. Our processing partners, from top maker to brand are keen to help, but first we must get rid of images of blood and pain and present an impeccable story for all to tell.
    The fashion industry needs and thrives on new and good stories. Rather than hinder, growers can help by having a good story to tell about our Australian Merino.
    So please everyone, can we forget about defending our patch and look to what is in the best interests of our total industry from your farm to the fashion shelves of the world?

    • Jim Gordon, October 27, 2020

      Peter Small, beautifully written; you are a master with the fountain pen.
      Like so many people, you are trying to bend the consumer to the producer’s way of life. We need to bend the producer to the consumer’s way of life. The person with the credit card is the boss.
      America, Europe and the top end of China wants wool from sheep that have no modifications to the breech area. No mention of pain relief, mulesing, freeze branding, etc, etc. A story that is completely green and sustainable. For the Chinese outer clothing sector, uniforms, police, army etc, for the hundreds of different organisations, the breech modifications aren’t as serious at the moment. So the bulk wools from Australia can go in there.
      Approximately 80 percent of Australian wool producers want to keep mulesing. Let them carry on, with or with out pain relief; it’s their decision.
      Approximately 20 percent are non-mulesed. Let them supply the non-mulesed market. The price of wool from each sector will determine which way the producer goes. The price of all wool sales needs to be included in the reporting. A lot of the non-mulesed wool is being sold privately, therefore not included in the reports.
      We just need a truthful, reliable National Wool Declaration, with no deception, and that the trade can understand and rely on, with two different categories, Non-mulesed and mulesed.
      In the mulesed section, it could include pain relief with freeze branding, pain relief with mulesing and any other breech modifications that come along.

      • Andrew Farran, October 27, 2020

        Jim Gordon, have you taken the trouble to look up the definition of mulesing?

        From there, it would be easy enough to answer the question whether in a particular case a sheep had or had not been mulesed.

        If you wish to expand the definition of mulesed that is your business, but that would be a gratuitous complication.

        • Donald Cameron, October 28, 2020

          Andrew, what is your solution?
          How do you propose to extricate the wool industry from this ‘mire’ — as you describe the current imbroglio?

        • Jim Gordon, October 27, 2020

          Andrew, if you think freeze branding is a different definition to mulesing, why do you want to include it in the non-mulesed category? Why are you wanting to piggyback on the non-mulesed certification? The welfare groups put all breech modifications in the same boat. They don’t want any breech modifications to take place on a sheep. There are tens of thousands of them and they are all customers. The genie is out of the bottle and you can’t stop them. They are in charge. You have to join them or take less, or not be able to sell your product at all. Fighting them is like trying to hold back the tide.
          I am sorry, I have worked hard to breed a sheep that doesn’t need any breech modifications and the welfare groups have given me a tick of approval. I do not want to lose that certification. I enjoy having everyone in the auction room able to buy my wool. This scenario is open to all wool producers.

          • Jim Gordon, October 28, 2020

            Andrew, I am sorry for being negative on the freeze branding, but the breeding of sheep that don’t need to be mulesed is so easy.
            This obsession with selecting for greater greasy fleece weight is so disappointing. This year the green, blue, yellow, dermo and flyblown wool that is being produced at the moment, is devastating. A wet year. The wastage could be up to 50 percent. I don’t know what China will do with this wool. We’ve got the stockpile and now we are starting to produce this wool.
            How important are those Merino ewes with white wool, no flies, uncomplicated skins that as a bonus don’t need to be mulesed?

          • Jim Gordon, October 28, 2020

            Andrew, I love the simple truth. A separate box on the National Wool Declaration for freeze branding that growers can tick. No smoke and mirrors.
            Like Australia Wool Innovation, I would never tell other sheep producers what to do.
            If I was asked by sheep producers – would I recommend freeze branding? I would say no, and these are the reasons. I have mulesed thousands of lambs and when you start on this non-mulesed journey you very quickly get some lambs that don’t need to be mulesed or have very little excess skin. So with those particular lambs, you can take a lot less off with the shears.
            This is very difficult with freeze branding. When you set the applicator on say ‘2’ then you will do a similar job on each lamb. If you get a heavy thick wrinkled skin, you have to turn the nob up to say 3 or 3.5 and use a lot more gas. The constant leakage of the nitrogen is a problem and there are a lot of lambs born in September, so marking takes place in October or November. The extra heat causes much more leakage of the nitrogen.
            Freeze branding is cumbersome and very expensive and there is blood and a lot of pain, and at the end of the day, the welfare groups want nothing to do with it. You can grandstand and try and convince people as much as you want, but the welfare groups are running the show and they are mostly in their 30’s and 40’s. They are full of energy and ready to go.
            The brands and retailers won’t move without the tick from the welfare groups. They don’t want them standing out side their shops demonstrating. Like I said before: this is the future, get with the program or start growing roses.

          • Andrew Farran, October 27, 2020

            Jim Gordon, I enjoy what you do, but that is not the end of it. If the question is mulesed or non-mulesed, then freeze branding is not mulesing. If I understand you, you would have a box for breech modification by other means. It is not with breech modification per se that the consumer market has a problem, it is the blood and gore with mulesing. That is the mire we need to escape. Simply saying that I do not mules and/or I have bred out the need for it does not win the war. It is merely a part of it. We need to win the war overall.

  6. Paul Favaloro, October 26, 2020

    Let’s not forget there is a lot of sheep in front of its behind. Flies are not fussy which part of the sheep their feed comes from.
    The fact is traditional sheep have skin appealing to flies.
    When the trade was asked about purchasing wool from anything other than sheep without the five freedoms, a definite ‘No’ was the answer. Until they all become serious and only purchase on a National Wool Declaration, the issue will not go away.
    Those who just concentrate on the behind will be just that, left behind.

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