- 1 Introduction
- 2 General Information
- 3 Harms to Sheep
- 4 Humane Labels and Certifications
- 5 Sheep Sentience and Cognition
- 6 Environmental Consequences of Wool Production
- 7 See Also
- 8 Meta
- 9 Footnotes
In this article, we provide some general information about wool and explore the ethical issues surrounding its production. We reveal that wool is not as innocuous as most believe it to be and that sheep suffer abuses, sometimes extreme, in the process of wool production.
We also expose the reality behind several wool certification programs, including the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS), the Patagonia Wool Standard (PWS), Certified Merino Growers, and ZQ. In addition, we discuss the environmental destruction caused by the wool industry.
This article describes how wool cannot be considered vegan because it involves the exploitation of and harm of sheep for something we do not need to survive. Furthermore, there are other fabrics available with similar properties which do not involve animal exploitation.
All the ethical problems with wool arise from a more fundamental problem, which is the belief that animals are here to be exploited by humans. As philosopher Tom Regan says, they "have a life of their own that is of importance to them, apart from their utility to us. They are not only in the world, they are aware of it and also of what happens to them. And what happens to them matters to them."
Though sheep were first domesticated 9,000 to 11,000 years ago, the first evidence of sheep being selectively bred to grow more hair dates from the sixth millennium BCE. Their wild ancestors, known as mouflon, had short, hairy coats. Woolly fleeces likely did not appear until around 3,000 BCE. The first woolen garments are believed to date back to 1,500 BCE.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), over one billion sheep are farmed worldwide. It is unclear how many are raised specifically for wool, particularly because many are used for both meat and wool.
China is the country with the largest number of sheep, with a total amount of over 137 million. The countries most associated with wool production are Australia (94.9 million sheep), New Zealand (37.8 million), and the United Kingdom (36.7 million). The United States has a total amount of 6.5 million.
Around 4,691 million pounds of wool were produced worldwide in 2015. Wool is graded based on the diameter of its fiber, with finer wool (fibers of 24.5 micrometers or under) used for clothing and coarser wool used for interior textiles like carpets and blankets. Since 2008, more wool has been used for interior textiles than for clothing.
Harms to Sheep
When the American Society of Animal Science (ASAS) says that to not shear sheep would be inhumane, they fail to point out that the only reason commercial sheep need to be sheared is because they have been bred to produce more wool than their forebears, as discussed below. A review of shearing videos shows that sheep are not willing volunteers and are, at a minimum, stressed by the handling.
When handlers are caught abusing sheep during the shearing process, the industry predictably proclaims that such abuse is the exception and that sheep farmers care for their animals. Yet such abuse is not unusual, as this article demonstrates below. As with other forms of animal exploitation, the pressures of profit and production take priority over the needs of the animals.
Shearers are usually paid according to the number of sheep they shear rather than by the hour. This provides an incentive to work quickly, with little regard for animal welfare. For this reason, injuries are common. Skin is often cut or ripped off, as are tails, ears, and teats. When this happens, wounds are hastily sewn up with a needle and thread. The sheep are not given painkillers.
Though some mistreatment occurs due to carelessness, undercover investigations conducted by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) have also found that some shearers are deliberately abusive. The footage, filmed across four continents and almost 100 facilities, shows shearers standing on sheep as well as punching and kicking them. Some sheep were recorded being hit in the face with electric clippers until they bled. In Australia and the US, sheep were thrown or kicked down chutes after being sheared. Cruelty was observed in 19 Australian shearing sheds and on 14 American ranches.
In the UK, shearers were filmed slamming the sheep’s heads into the floor, kicking them in the stomach, and squeezing their throats. The sheep were also thrown around and had their limbs and necks twisted. Sheep with mastitis and prolapsed uteruses were not given veterinary care. Sheep are prey animals who find it very stressful to be pinned down by shearers; the investigation found that several sheep died after being violently handled during shearing, likely from shock.
Wild sheep grow exactly the right amount of hair and wool to insulate them against the heat and the cold. This makes shearing unnecessary. However, domesticated sheep have been selectively bred to grow much more wool than is needed.
Some types of merino sheep have been bred to have heavily wrinkled skin. This is because some farmers believe that the increased surface area means more wool per animal. Carrying this much wool can lead to heat exhaustion in hot weather.
Moisture and urine often gather in the folds of merino skin. This attracts flies, which lay their eggs in the wrinkles. When the eggs hatch, the maggots begin to eat the sheep alive. This is known as fly-strike.
Shortly after birth, lambs have holes punched in their ears so tags can be inserted, and their tails are usually docked.
Male lambs are castrated, sometimes by having an incision made in the scrotum and the testicles pulled out. In other cases, castration is done by cutting off the blood supply with a rubber ring until the testicles drop off. The procedure is painful, and for younger animals, pain relief is generally not provided.
To prevent fly-strike (described in the previous section), farmers may carry out a procedure called mulesing. This involves cutting away large chunks of skin from the backs of lambs’ legs and the area around their tails. Again, this is often done without anesthetic. The resulting scarred skin is smooth and so less susceptible to fly-strike. However, the process leaves bloody wounds and is known to be painful.
Abuse and Neglect
Commercial sheep farms typically have very large flocks, often consisting of thousands of sheep. This makes it difficult for farmers to give the sheep individual attention. Investigations have found rampant neglect, with injuries and conditions like fly-strike often going untreated.
As discussed below, the Patagonia Wool Standard (PWS) was created to address deficiencies in the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS). Yet investigators reported abuses to pregnant ewes living under the PWS standard. In 2017, these investigators witnessed heavily pregnant ewes being whipped and forced through a chute on a PWS-certified farm in Utah. After being sheared, some ewes were forced out into the desert, where they faced extremely cold night temperatures with almost no wool to protect them. The ewes were left to give birth in these conditions.
Live Export and Slaughter
Sheep from Australia, which produces around a quarter of the wool used worldwide, are typically sent to the Middle East or North Africa to be slaughtered. They are transported live on crowded ships where diseases like conjunctivitis and salmonellosis are rife. Journeys often last several days and sometimes weeks.
Urine and feces accumulate throughout the journey, and the ships are not cleaned until the end. This leads to a buildup of ammonia, which is corrosive and burns the sheep’s throats and eyes. Some sheep are lame and have no choice but to lie on the feces-covered floors, where they are trampled by other sheep. The food on board the ships is different from what the sheep are used to, and many become ill or die of starvation as a result.
In the summer, the ships become extremely hot, leading many of the sheep to become heat stressed. Some quickly collapse and die, while others die slowly over a period of a few days. It was reported that 5,982 sheep died during export in 2018 alone. Their bodies are often left decaying on the ships.
Though exporting pregnant sheep is illegal, investigations have found that it happens frequently. Ewes often end up giving birth on board the ships, and crew members are usually ordered to kill the lambs. They may also be trampled by adult sheep or become separated from their mothers in the crowded conditions.
Many Middle Eastern countries have very little animal welfare legislation, meaning the surviving sheep are subjected to more mistreatment when they arrive. Investigators from Animals Australia discovered that when the ships dock, sheep are often thrown into the backs of trucks, trussed, and dragged roughly to slaughter. Some sheep are bought by untrained individuals who brutally slaughter them at home, while others go to unregulated slaughterhouses. All are slaughtered using Halal methods, meaning their throats are slit while they are still conscious.
Lambs slaughtered under Patagonia's Responsible Wool Standard (see below) fare no better. Footage from 2015 shows lambs in Argentina having their throats slit and then being skinned while still alive. Slaughter was carried out in full view of the other lambs who were going to be killed. These abuses were documented on a farm certified by the Responsible Wool Standard and supplying wool to outdoor clothing company Patagonia.
Wild sheep generally inhabit forests, grasslands, or rocky, mountainous areas. However, domesticated sheep are often farmed in areas for which they are not suited. This can lead to health problems. For example, when sheep are farmed in damp lowland regions, they are prone to infections like foot rot and scald, both of which can lead to lameness. In some flocks, over nine percent of sheep have foot rot and over 15 percent have scald. As a result, lameness is an extremely common problem. Extreme cases of foot rot can even lead to the horn of the hoof becoming detached, leaving just a stump. Wet weather also increases the prevalence of parasites, foot and mouth disease, and mastitis, a painful infection of the udder.
Wild sheep are able to roam and find shelter from the elements. However, farmed sheep rarely have shelter provided. This leaves them vulnerable to both the heat and the cold. Consequently, many lambs die of exposure.
Wool as a By-Product
Wool is sometimes stripped from slaughtered sheep, often from lambs killed for meat. This wool is known as pulled wool. Sometimes, sheep or lambs are killed and skinned shortly after being shorn. The hide is tanned with the wool still attached. This is known as shearling. 
As a result, purchasing wool or related products often helps to fund the meat industry.
Humane Labels and Certifications
Responsible Wool Standard
The Responsible Wool Standard, or RWS, is a voluntary standard. This means companies and farmers can choose to be certified, but it is not required.
The inefficacy of this standard is best illuminated by the abuses discussed above that investigators found, including lambs being skinned while still alive.
The RWS does prohibit some of the most painful and abusive standard practices, such as mulesing. It also places restrictions on many others, though these restrictions are often vague. For example, the RWS guidelines state that harmful practices such as tail docking “shall only be carried out if failure to do so would lead to welfare problems.” However, it is not specified which situations this would apply in.
Castration is permitted in males who will be kept beyond puberty. Farmers are allowed to castrate lambs by using a rubber ring to cut off the blood supply to the testicles. This is considered to be an extremely painful method of castration. Pain relief is only mandatory when the castration is carried out surgically.
The RWS even allows the slaughter of sheep on farms, stating that “acceptable methods of slaughter for sheep include: a) firearm b) penetrating and non-penetrating captive bolt guns.” The slaughter of healthy animals is not prohibited.
RWS guidelines state that sheep must have adequate food and water available at all times. However, if this is not possible due to “exceptional circumstances,” then “arrangements shall be made to relocate, sell, or humanely dispose of the sheep to ensure their welfare is not adversely affected.”
Perhaps most worryingly, farmers are not required to install cameras, so there is no way of knowing whether the standards are being adhered to. Though unannounced inspections are sometimes carried out, it is unlikely that this is enough to induce workers to comply at all times. Undercover investigations carried out on RWS-certified farms support this.
Patagonia Wool Standard
In response to PETA investigations revealing cruelty in its supply chain, clothing company Patagonia created its own stricter version of the RWS. The Patagonia Wool Standard includes guidelines on transportation and “compassionate handling” of sheep, as well as avoiding injuries during shearing. It requires audits at both shearing and lambing times.
Though on paper it is the strictest wool certification in the world, a 2017 PETA investigation uncovered cruelty at a PWS-certified farm, showing that the guidelines were not being adhered to. The investigations, which are discussed above, show the result of this lack of enforcement—pregnant ewes being whipped and then being forced to live in and give birth in extremely cold temperatures after shearing, having no wool to protect them.
ZQ is a standard created by the New Zealand Merino Company. It prohibits mulesing and live exports and requires farmers to provide sheep with the “five freedoms.” These state that sheep should be free from thirst, free to live naturally, free from discomfort, free from distress, and free from disease. They also specify that sheep should be free to “display normal patterns of behavior.”
However, farms only need to be audited once every three years to be ZQ certified. Unannounced inspections are not carried out, so there is no way of knowing whether farmers are complying with requirements the majority of the time.
The New Zealand Merino Company describes itself as “an integrated sales, marketing, and innovation company…focused on transforming New Zealand’s Merino sheep industry.” Since the company profits from the sale of merino wool, there is a potential conflict of interest (though audits are carried out by a third party).
Certified Merino Growers
The Certified Merino Growers certification was created by NewMerino, an independent organization that does not directly sell wool. However, the certification is weak, simply requiring farmers to register online and make a written commitment to adhere to the Five Freedoms (mentioned in the previous section). An audit is also required for full certification, but this can be completed at any time during the first 24 months after registration. Once the farm has been fully certified, no further checks are carried out.
Mulesing and dehorning are forbidden under the certification, but painful procedures such as tail docking, castration, and ear notching are permitted provided certain conditions are met.
A code of conduct for shearing is provided but not enforced, with no unannounced inspections or requirement for cameras in shearing sheds.
Sheep Sentience and Cognition
Studies have shown that sheep can recognize the faces of up to 50 other sheep, as well as human faces. They can remember faces for as long as two years, using a neural mechanism similar to humans'. In one study, sheep responded emotionally when shown photographs of absent individuals (both sheep and human). The researchers concluded that this suggests sheep are capable of conscious thought.
The sheep were even able to distinguish between different emotions, such as anger and happiness, on human faces. In another study, researchers said the facial recognition abilities of sheep were on par with those of humans and primates.
Researchers have also discovered that when sheep are ill, they heal themselves by eating plants with medicinal effects. Ewes teach their lambs which plants to eat, and the knowledge may be passed down for several generations. The study showed that sheep kept returning to plants that had helped them before.
Environmental Consequences of Wool Production
Considerable land is cleared to graze sheep for wool production. This includes forested land. Clearing of land leads to soil erosion, increased soil salinity, and decreased biodiversity. In Patagonia, Argentina, sheep farming in the first half of the 20th century led to soil erosion and eventually desertification.
Additionally, sheep generate large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that traps 72 times as much heat in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. In New Zealand, where sheep farming is a major industry, livestock is responsible for more than 90 percent of methane emissions. Worldwide, the manure produced by sheep and other farm animals is also a major contributor to the greenhouse effect.
In 2017, a report entitled "Pulse of the Fashion Industry" was published by Global Fashion Agenda and the Boston Consulting Group. It concluded that overall, wool is one of the most environmentally damaging fabrics and that its production causes more pollution than artificial fibers like rayon, acrylic, and polyester. A 2010 study in the Journal of Cleaner Production found that the impact of wool production is greater than that of sheep meat or wheat production. Additionally, sheep farming is a known cause of water pollution, in large part due to fecal contamination.
Sheep dip also presents an environmental hazard. This toxic chemical is used to kill parasites on sheep. In Scotland, a study of 795 facilities concluded that 40 percent ran the risk of causing pollution. Neurological problems in farmers have also been linked to exposure to the organophosphates in sheep dip.
Animals that are considered a threat to sheep are often killed by farmers. In Australia, where much of the world’s wool is produced, kangaroos are considered to be pests. As a result, landowners can apply for a permit that allows them to legally kill kangaroos on their own property. The government has even issued guidelines on the best way to kill a joey if his or her mother has been shot. They state that the joey should be killed with a “blow sufficient to crush the skull and destroy the brain”—or stunning and decapitation.
Thousands of coyotes are also killed each year in the US for eating livestock, including sheep.
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