Summer musings on flies and welfare

Summer musings on flies and welfare

Summer musings on flies and welfare The Natural Fibre Company

This is a lovely picture of Jane Cooper with her Boreray flock, being shepherded by her chickens!  Or that’s what it looks like, anyway … it could simply be that all of them are hopefully following the bucket Jane is carrying.

Jane’s flock is amongst the most well tended anywhere – partly because she is very new to the job and partly because she cares a great deal and knows that good health and welfare produce good wool, skins and meat.  I would hope that my sheep are equally well tended.  Nevertheless, neither of these flocks would exist were it not that we wanted them to.  The big question behind this is, of course, why?

it is a luxury for us in the UK to be smallholders, not relying on the income for our total livelihood, and even many farmers across Europe supplement their income with a job or farm diversification, as varied as holiday cottages, courses, food, restaurants, farm visits, craft work, and much  more.

However, I always feel slightly (well, actually, very!) insulted if people say my farming is hobby or lifestyle.  It is not.  It is not my sole source of income, but I have to run it as a business in order to have any value – my sheep may behave like pets but they are not pets.  Jane’s don’t behave like pets, although they are beginning to understand the benefits of a little compromise from time to time. Like The Cat That Walked by Himself (my most favourite of Kipling’s Just So Stories) they are domesticated wild animals – in the case of Gotlands and Borerays, this is very much on the semi-domesticated-to-wild end of the spectrum.  The first action on my daily inspection is to count the sheep, and the second is to observe them for unusual behaviour or problems – this is only possible by taking time and being quiet, so it is actually also very good for me!

If we compare our husbandry to a large commercial sheep farm in the UK, particularly on the hills, or to an even larger commercial farm in Australia, Argentina or the USA, very different management systems must be applied.  It is not practical to count 1,000 sheep individually across the fells, let alone 5,000, and certainly not every day.  In the UK, it is a legal obligation on flock owners to see and check their sheep daily, in good light, and ensure that they are treated if unwell and, mainly, to try and prevent them from becoming unwell or hurt (for instance getting caught in a wire fence).  It is a legal offence to permit an animal to suffer.  The UK rules apply in the EU as well, due to our Common Agricultural Policy.  Even so, realistically, a fell sheep farmer may not be able to see all the flock each day – the parable of the Good Shepherd however springs to mind, and with the help of good understanding of the flock and its relationship to the land and a good dog, it is certainly possible to see them every 48 hours.

So now we come to the nub of things:

  • I will arrange to kill some of my sheep and eat them or sell their meat: this is essential if I wish to continue to produce fine wool and maintain the pedigree flock.  I could delegate this by only buying lambs born in other flocks, or by maintaining a flock of wethers, but if I do this I have less control of quality and am basically delegating the “nasty bits” to someone else, who may be a better or worse shepherd than I am.  At least I am taking full responsibility for my actions. 
  • I will also treat my sheep by vaccination against common diseases and periodically with worm, fluke, coccidiosis or other treatments, including anti-biotics if there is an injury.  I will observe any withdrawal period required and I will treat according to the weight of the animal for best effectiveness.  Even so, I know that I am increasing the risks of resistance to the pesticides amongst the bugs I am treating and that there will be some residues left on my ground via defecation and in the meat, skin and fleece.  It may be better for the long-term health of the flock and breed to cull or even allow weaker animals to die, as would be the case were they completely wild?
  • The same will apply to fly-strike treatments as for other disease treatments: I personally can afford to observe and treat where necessary rather than applying a blanket preventative policy by dipping or using pour-ons on the whole flock

But if I were in Australia, where the anti-fly-strike treatments are foresworn, but the flies are virulent and the land is wide open outback with farms the size of English counties or larger, how would I manage? 

  • I could try and bring all the sheep very frequently, observe and treat, but I would be  bound to miss some and these sheep, being wide-ranging, are more wild and therefore more stressed by any interaction with people.  Many would die of fly-strike before I could find them. 
  • I could try and breed sheep which are resistant to fly-strike, which is what is being done. 
  • Or, bearing in mind the demands of the market place for the fine virtual wool mono-culture Merino, which earns Australia a reasonable part of its annual income (though now much smaller than mining and other industries), I could use the “technique” of mulesing (invented by Mr Mules).  This is not a nice treatment, and undoubtedly causes pain, distress, infection and death to the lambs to which it is done.  Mulesing consists of taking a large pinch of the loose flesh around the anus and tail of the lamb and simply clipping it off, to leave hairless scar tissue instead of the woolly bits which collect faeces and attract flies.  The result, though, is a flock of sheep of which many fewer will die of fly-strike – and perhaps the pain of the mulesing is worth this.  Talking to Australian vets, they prefer mulesing to fly-strike, but clearly there are various ways in which it could or should be done, for example with anaesthetic, and stitching and anti-biotics, for instance.

I am writing about this now because the email news-stream Fashion United carried a piece this week about bad treatment of sheep in Australia, reported by the animal rights organisation, Peta.  You can see it at

The article focusses on bad treatment of animals, and not on mulesing, and is also looking at only Australia and the USA, although it is China which is the largest producer country for wool, and merino, worlside.  I could, but have not provided links to the horrendous graphic photo’s available online about mulesing, which you can search for yourselves.

I also am writing because this week, while trimming caked faeces off the area around the tail of one of my ewes to reduce any risk of fly-strike, I accidentaly cut her.  I treated it with anti-biotic spray and observed her carefully for a couple of days and it is now fine and was a pretty small cut anyway.  I did not do this intentionally and was not hurrying – it just happened that I did not see the fold of flesh (Gotlands’ dark skin and wool are less easy to shear than white sheep!) and made a mistake.  I feel awful about this and was very worried because of the weather at present, which is attracting flies.  I could have tried our new Stopmyasis organic treatment but actually in the end it was pretty windy so I also just used some of my home-made mix of water, a little cooking oil and tea-tree and citronella oil to spray around all the sheep backs (they seem to quite like it or at least don’t run away!).

It is also very important, while coming towards the end of the British shearing season in the south of the country (it moves north with the sun, traditionally), to point out that there really is no excuse for kicking or punching sheep while shearing.  Indeed, it takes more energy to do this than to manage a sheep properly according to the correct, internationally recognised, Bowen shearing technique or its local variants.  This technique minimises stress to the sheep and shearer and enables the fleece to removed quickly, efficiently and painlessly.  Sheep shearers do compete for speed, but they are continuously inspected in competitions by judges who watch the technique both in terms of effectiveness and sheep welfare – afterwards any small cut or mistake will reduce the score achieved by the competitor, so it is not about speed alone.  I spend part of the summer commentating on shearing at local shows to make this very point – and it is clear that the sheep are not harmed, and get up and go away happily to graze.

Animal welfare is our responsibility and we should ensure that we do the most appropriate and best we can for the given circumstances.  It is our desires and wants (not just our needs!), combined of course with the needs of the businesses in the industry, which drive the fashion industry, so it is our responsiblity to ensure that we seek the products of high welfare husbandry and farming, together with good working practices in all onward production.  But we do need to think carefully both about how much we need and whether it is right or wrong to criticise others who are simply producing things we buy!  It is not always possible, as Pandora found, to reverse things and the world today is a long way from the rosy-hued past when everything was beautiful: we have a big world population to feed, clothe and shelter and we all have to manage the ethics of how this should or can be done.