The Ethical Aspect of Sheep Shearing

Ethical questions have been brought to the forefront of national debate on whether or not sheep shearing is ethical. As a knitter, I have never thought about the process of getting the wool from sheep to knitting needles and how it may affect them. While researching the topic I discovered that the process of shearing is what allows knitters to utilize wool to make their projects. The International Wool Textile Organization is largely recognized as a regulatory organization for the standards for wool shearing.

The Sheep Care Guide serves as the guidelines for which farmers are to follow to ensure ethical welfare. In the debate, there are many people who are for shearing and those who are against shearing. Shearing has many positive effects that contribute to the well-being of the animal, including health benefits, lambing welfare, and decrease in flystrike. There are also many organizations, specifically People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, that believe sheep shearing is in stark opposition to humane treatment of sheep.

They believe that the negative effects, including stress, infection prevention, and physical harm, outweigh the material goods.

Most ovine species do not shed their wool naturally. As a result, the wool needs to be removed manually in order for there not to be detrimental complications for the animals. According to the American Society of Animal Science, a surplus of wool does not allow the sheep to control their body temperatures. This can cause hyperthermia and possibly even death. It also impedes the ability of the sheep to remain cleanly, causing waste products to accumulate and bring about disease (“There is no such thing…”).

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In Australia, a merino sheep was found in the wild with approximately five times the normal amount of wool. According to the article, the sheep, named Chris, was “…partially blinded by the wool flopping into his eyes, his hooves were damaged from carrying the weight of all that extra wool. He also had skin burns from urine trapped in his fleece. Plus, had Chris fallen down, his mass of wool would have made it difficult to get back up, rendering him easy prey…” (Wagner) According to the article, eighty-nine pounds of wool was sheared off! This process deals accordingly with the Freedom from Pain, Injury, or Disease.

In merino sheep, they have “…heavy wrinkles or folds in their skin, including folds around their hind legs, where urine and feces sit and soak into the wool. The skinfold become moist and actually attract an insect called the blowfly.” (Animalsoffarmsanctuary) These blowflies cause a disease known as fly-strike. This problem can be prevented by the shearing of the sheep or mulesing, which is a procedure where flesh is removed from the upper thigh to promote the proliferation of scar tissue. This will serve as a preventative to disease and infections.

The welfare of sheep shearing should always be dealt with in regard to the five freedoms. “Animal welfare relates to both the physical and behavioural health of the animal or species; therefore, good animal welfare is the providing of the correct environment and care to satisfy the ‘five freedoms’ for the animal or species concerned.” (Kirwan, Chapter 1) The International Wool Textile Organization specifies exactly how these freedoms are to be defined in accordance with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) Terrestrial Animal Heath Code’s five freedoms.

The American Sheep Industry Association provides educational material on the practice of shearing, including the Sheep Care Guide. Within this guide, there are different aspects of wool production management and how to uphold these welfare standards as a main responsibility for farmers.

There are also positive effects on birth weight of lambs and their ability to survive to weaning. In a study done at Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand, 1,002 ewes were studied to evaluate their lambs’s weight at birth and its ability to survive to adulthood. Over the course of 4-7 years, these two variables were studied throughout multiple breeds of sheep and flocks. In conclusion of this study “…shearing ewes during pregnancy (P50-P100) can increase lamb birthweight. Producers who use this practice are more likely to get a response in years when conditions result in less than optimum lamb birthweights. Pre-lamb shearing does not affect the subsequent growth of lambs and the increased birthweight can lead to reduced mortality rates…” (Kenyon, P.R., et al) So, not only does shearing have positive effects on sheep during life but it also sets them up for their future before it has even begun. Additionally, there is another method of shearing that helps with prenatal birth and lamb mortality called crutching. According to the Sheep Care Guide, “Crutching is the removal of wool from the areas around the vulva, udder, and inside of the rear legs…allows easy observation of the signs and progress of birth, reduces potential contamination of the lamb as it is born and of the ewe if assistance is needed. Makes it easier for lambs to find the teats to nurse and reduces the potential contamination of the teats and udder,.. reduces the potential for fly strike” (Woiwode, Ruth, et. Al, 23)

In contrast to the beneficial aspects of sheep shearing, there are some who would believe that shearing is unethical and inhumane. One of these organizations is the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). They believe that any and all harm that a sheep experiences during shearing is undue stress. There have been instances that have been caught on camera by PETA where sheep farmers are “…caught punching, kicking, and stomping on sheep, in addition to hitting them in the face with electric clippers and standing on their heads, necks, and hind limbs. One shearer was seen beating a lamb with a hammer…” (The Wool Industry) In these cases, there are definitely breaches in the ethical and humane treatment of these sheep. Some of these wounds could be due to being bad at the job, not caring, holding the shears improperly or there is the possibility that they have dull blades on the shears. In any of these aspects, they should have already been taken care of before beginning the process of shearing.

Consumer demand is another argument to the detriments of shearing. Once demand starts increasing for a certain material good, the production of it will need to increase. Unfortunately, this can lead to a decrease in the ethical treatment of the animals as farmers may get frustrated easily or may be prone to more clumsy nicks and wounds. “In the sheep farming industry, where farmers are working to tight profit margins in tough conditions, there is so little slack in the system that – at times like shearing – speed can be valued over other concerns.” (Hamilton, Lindsay) With wool being both sustainable and biodegradable, I believe that it will become more of an in demand commodity and, in time, only drive this demand higher.

Shearing can also cause stress due to improper handling or restraint. There are certain, correct ways that sheep should be handled in order to provide comfort and calmness, known as “tipping.” As discussed in the paper by Hefnawy, Abdelghany, et al., “Evaluation of the effect of shearing on some welfare parameters, antioxidants, and inflammatory and stress biomarkers in Ossimi sheep revealed significant alterations in some clinical, behavioral and biochemical parameters regarding to oxidative stress…the shearing procedure may be considered a stressful condition, as evidenced by the significant increase in cortisol, MDA, IL-6, IL-2, and TNF- concentrations associated with decreased GSH-R and CAT concentrations, as well as clinical and behavioral changes.” (1282-1285)

Another point of contention of shearing ethics is mulesing. Mulesing is the process of removing flesh on the thighs of the hindlimb to prevent fly strike infections. The contentious concern regarding this procedure is that it is done by “force live sheep onto their backs, restrain their legs between metal bars, and, often without any painkillers whatsoever, carve huge chunks of skin away from the animals’ backsides…” (“Mulesling by the Wool Industry.”)This practice is unethical as it does not follow the standards of the five freedoms. It is especially in conflict with the freedom from pain, injury, and disease.

Upon reflection, I believe that sheep shearing is ethical. Although I do not have any experience with large animals, I believe that, if done correctly and humanely, sheep shearing is important and very integral to the overall well being of the animals. Many uneducated organizations will look at the way farmers are handling their sheep and say that it is inhumane, but they are not willing to listen to the voice of reason as to why it is actually a scientifically sound restraint. Consumers need to take responsibility for their choices and educate themselves from reputable sources, like science based articles, not one-sided, extremist organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Consumers concerns are valid, though they must understand that the sheep farmers want to provide the best possible care for their sheep because otherwise, a sick or injured animal becomes a liability and they will lose money since the animals will not be performing to the best of their ability.

If, after consumers educate themselves, they still believe that the technique a farmer is using to shear is unethical, they need to be willing to pay more for a product, since the new system will require more time and possibly more expensive operations. It is understandable that customers want a consistent, uniform, low cost product. However, the consumers and the producers must find a way to connect at both the local and national level. Responsible sheep farmers need to figure out a way to educate the lay person as well as law makers. It is vital that those that are making laws be aware of what it takes to keep the wool industry running. Only until someone, consumer or law maker, fully understands what it takes to produce a safe and ethically sound product should they have a voice in the matter. It is important that the topic of ethical sheep shearing be revisited once advances have been made in the industry. After all, the first priority for those involved in raising any animal is to provide ethical animal welfare to their animal at all times, even if it means adapting to new techniques.

While studying abroad in Ireland, I enrolled in Human Medical Ethics. During my time in the course, I learned with many irrational things that some doctors had done. For instance, there was an OB-GYN doctor that would deliver C-section babies and then perform hysterectomies because something had gone wrong during the procedure. It later came to light that these hysterectomies were not needed and that he was trying to perform population control. I was in complete awe. It’s amazing to see the vast differences in how we, as people, think in regard to ethics. Take the horse racing video we watched in class. When the horses jumped over the fence and proceeded to become lame, I was in shock that this sport was still in practice, especially with the increase in animal welfare. People who had worked with horses their entire lives had no problem saying that the horses should be euthanized immediately once they had become lame.

Others who had little to no experience, wanted to have the horse evaluated by a veterinarian to see if there was anything that could be done to salvage the horse’s leg. Unfortunately, I completely forgot about ethics until this class. And again, I have been entranced by all the different stories that were told in class. After class one day, I was on FaceTime with my mother and my aunt and they had been talking about how I was enjoying the class since I had been telling my mom the stories from class as well. My aunt, who is a lawyer, said that she listens to a podcast that she thought I would enjoy. So, since the beginning of the semester, I have now been listening to the podcast called “Everyday Ethics.” I find it truly fascinating to listen to experts in certain areas explain how their side of the topic does or does not make sense in regard to their views compared to another person’s opinions.

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The Ethical Aspect of Sheep Shearing. (2022, Feb 04). Retrieved from

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