ANIMAL protection groups are maintaining their opposition to sheep freeze branding as an alternative to surgical mulesing, as growers embrace the process and plans are made to independently research its welfare impacts.
Thousands of wool producers across Victoria and New South Wales are lining up to have their 2019-drop lambs undergo the process rather than mules to reduce the risk of flystrike.
But the Humane Society International Australia and FOUR PAWS this week reiterated their opposition to any sheep breech modification and support for selective breeding to remove wrinkle and lessen flystrike susceptibility.
They said the sheep freeze branding process developed by Victorian veterinarian Dr John Steinfort is not the solution to surgical mulesing. The liquid nitrogen application process involves clamping and freezing breech wrinkle and wool to increase the area of bare skin under the tail.
FOUR PAWS Australia head of programs Jessica Medcalf said there is currently no robust independent scientific evidence to prove that steining or ‘freeze mulesing’ does not cause significant pain. The groups currently oppose any form of sheep breech modification.
“Alongside HSI and a growing list of brands, FOUR PAWS is opposed to wool from freeze-mulesed sheep being classified as ‘non-mulesed’.
“We have highlighted this to the Australian Wool Exchange which is currently reviewing its National Wool Declaration, the scheme whereby producers classify their wool as mulesed or non-mulesed for buyers in the supply chain,” Ms Medcalf said.
RSPCA Australia has also previously told Sheep Central it does not support any breech modification on sheep in the absence of a breeding program aimed at achieving a flystrike-resistant flock. The welfare body sees a need for pain research into sheep freeze branding process that should be peer reviewed and published in a reputable journal.
Dr Steinfort has joined with Australia’s largest independent wool marketer Australian Wool Network to form AgVet Innovations, to develop and promote sheep freeze branding, and the company’s general manager Stuart Blair said he believed the results of upcoming university trials will validate it is a welfare-considerate process that protects animals against deadly flystrike. The independent trials will take place in the first half of next year during the lambing season, with peer-reviewed results available shortly after.
Sheep freeze branding technology will initially be rolled out across the Western District of Victoria and southern New South Wales using specialised dispensing units operated by livestock contractors with potentially more than 40,000 sheep processed. Existing independent contractors are being trained in the use of an automated handpiece.
“This one-off application uses a total skin depth freeze which deactivates the nerves creating numbness on the targeted site,” Dr Steinfort said.
“The animals then continue as if nothing has happened.
“The process can be used at lamb marking, weaning or as weaners,” he said.
“Producers agree the animals jump freely out of the cradles, mother up and move readily back to the paddock without setback.
“Producers continually acknowledge the unhindered weight gains, producing better weaning rates and survival,” Dr Steinfort said.
“Research has shown these sheep produce nine percent more wool than a sheep which has been mulesed using pain relief – evidence shows there are no setbacks from the procedure.”
Mr Blair said the HSI and FOUR PAWS claim that sheep freeze branding is painful is based on a report produced a number of years ago.
“The technology used has evolved significantly since that time and the two processes cannot be compared.”
CSIRO’s principal research scientist Dr Ali Small said the current sheep freeze branding technique differs substantially from what was evaluated in 2015-16.
“Therefore, I’m not in a position to comment on welfare assessments for the current technique.
“In our 2015-16 study, we noticed that the postures of the sheep we evaluated were different from those demonstrated by sheep undergoing surgical mulesing,” she said.
“We only scored ‘abnormal’ or ‘normal’ for postures, and the counts of ‘abnormal’ did not differ significantly between the two groups.
“For future evaluations, it would be interesting to include measures such as movement, activity, head up versus head down, Visual Analog Scale or QBA – both measures of the apparent overall ‘attitude’ of the animal.”
Freeze branding classification under review
Wool from sheep treated with freeze branding is currently classified under Australia’s current National Wool Declaration as ‘non-mulesed’, However, wool integrity schemes such as Textile Exchange’s Responsible Wool Standard, New Zealand’s ZQ Merino, and Australia’s NewMerino standard do not recognise wool from freeze-branded sheep as ‘non-mulesed’.
The Schneider Group, with its Authentico integrity scheme, is supportive of the freeze branding concept, but G. Schneider Australia managing director Tim Marwedel said the company would like to see more scientific evidence, so its clients can decide individually, based on their own consumer preferences.
“Animal welfare agencies will also have some influence on these decisions.
“We are interested in the next version of the NWD to have the opinion of the industry,” Mr Marwedel said.
Some Italian processors and brands are also yet to take a position on sheep freeze branding and are waiting on the results of the pain research, and on AWEX’s position on the process in an NWD review report due soon.
Humane Society International’s program manager for animal welfare Georgie Dolphin said selectively breeding the wrinkle from a flock is a pain-free solution which also protects the sheep from flystrike across all of the body, rather than just their breech area.
“With the right genetics it can be achieved within just five years or less.
“Literally millions of lambs are subjected to mulesing each year and shifting towards another form of breech mutilation is not the answer for modern farming,” she said.
“We have spoken to numerous wool growers across the country who have successfully made the transition to plain-bodied sheep and are reaping the rewards.”
Mr Blair said AgVet Innovations recently welcomed a number of representatives from international brands to demonstrations in order to provide visibility of the Sheep Freeze Branding process.
“We hope that animal welfare bodies would welcome any process shown to be welfare considerate that helps move the industry away from mulesing whilst improvements in sheep genetics continue to be made.
“We see sheep freeze branding as an interim solution that allows Australian growers to stop mulesing whilst genetic improvements in breeding plainer-bodied sheep continue to be made,” he said.
“The reliance on other management techniques, such as the use of chemicals has other negative impacts, such as chemical residues and increased resistance.
“We are hopeful of an outcome from the NDW review that would provide encouragement for growers to adopt alternative solutions to the current practice (mulesing).”