The Rupp Report: Don't Hide, Think Global
Jürg Rupp, Executive Editor
For centuries, wool was probably the most precious fiber used to produce fabrics and eventually
apparel. Fine wool was associated with wealth. According to surveys, the wool label was one of the
most prominent labels around the world. This changed drastically in the last 25 years, as wool lost
ground. The wool industry from Australia and New Zealand tried everything to remain competitive. In
spite of all their actions, the market share of wool dropped. Because of marketing actions around
the globe from down under, wool lost its exclusive flavor and became just “wash-and-wear.” It went
the same way as silk — it became a commodity.
To make sheep farming more economical, John W. H. Mules developed the practice of mulesing. Everybody in the wool trade knows how much effort it takes to clean wool. And this begins when farming the sheep in the field. Mulesing is the physical removal of strips of wool-bearing wrinkled skin around the tail of the sheep. While shearing a ewe that had suffered several fly-strikes, Mules’ hand slipped and his blade shears removed some skin from her rear end. After performing this procedure on his other sheep, Mules noticed that it prevented the occurrence of fly strike. Mulesing is common practice in Australia as a way to reduce the incidence of fly strike, particularly on Merino sheep in regions where fly strike is common. Originally, mulesing was carried out on sheep after they were weaned because it was considered too rough for lambs. The New South Wales Department of Primary Industries states in the Standard Operating Procedures that, “ while the operation causes some pain, no pre or post operative pain relief measures are used.”
Mulesing is different from crutching. Crutching is the mechanical removal of wool around the tail, anus — and vulva in ewes — and also down the inside of the hock where needed in breeds of sheep with woolly points. Mulesing is the removal of skin to provide permanent resistance to breech strike in Merino sheep. Other breeds tend to have less loose skin and wool so close to the tail and may have less dense wool. Crutching has to be repeated at regular intervals as the wool grows continuously. Frequent crutching of Merinos reduces the incidence of fly strike, but not as much as mulesing does.
Animal welfare advocates strongly oppose mulesing; and say mulesing without anesthesia is cruel and painful, and that more humane alternatives exist. Current veterinary opinion considers it a necessary compromise in providing for the general welfare of sheep in areas of Australia. It is expected to be phased out in Australia by 2010, and has already been phased out in New Zealand.
But the problems for the wool industry increased due to massive pressure. In October 2004, US-based fashion retailer Abercrombie & Fitch Co. responded to pressure from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to boycott Australian merino wool due in part to the practice of mulesing in Australia. The boycott also seeks to draw attention to Australia’s live sheep export trade. PETA’s campaign has hurt the Australian wool industry, with some US and British clothing retailers agreeing to the boycott. One month later, representatives of the Australian wool industry voted to phase out the practice of mulesing in Australia by 2010.
Proponents of mulesing are largely from Australia, where conditions are conducive for severe fly strikes. While alternatives are available, Australian farmers say alternatives are not yet economically viable. But is it more viable for a fighting industry to influence or even blackmail people in the days of global communication possibilities?
This actually happened in Sweden, when a lobbyist from the Australian wool industry tried to prevent a report on television about the method of mulesing. He offered a free trip to Australia, if the person would not express herself in a negative way about mulesing. Unfortunately for the lobbyist, everything was filmed with a hidden camera. Cut.
The outcome of this strange story is that mulesing is now on the agenda of the European Union to take action, and even boycott Australian wool in Europe. The next page of this story is yet to be written.
March 11, 2008