Selective Breeding and Shearing
Most wool comes from wrinkly-skinned Merino sheep, selectively bred to produce greater volumes of wool. Wild sheep naturally shed their fleece in the spring, but Merino and other domesticated breeds cannot, and must be sheared.
Ranchers pay sheep shearers by volume, not by the hour. Most shearers work as quickly as they can, and many sheep are handled roughly or injured in the shearing process.
Wild sheep are also sheared before they naturally shed their fleece, and often while it is still very cold. An estimated one million sheep die each year from this exposure, and many contract pneumonia.
Shearing could be replaced with bioclipping, a process that does not require blades. It is safer for ranchers because sheep often struggle during the process, and it is faster than traditional shearing.
Merino sheep raised in Australia are prone to flystrike. Blowflies lay their eggs in the sheep’s wrinkly skin and thick fur, and the maggots feed on the living sheep. If untreated, flystrike can cause sheep to die a slow and dreadful death.
The most common method of prevention is mulesing – the painful surgical removal of wrinkled skin from a sheep’s rump area. While anaesthetics have been approved for use in the process, Australian law does not require their use.
Ranchers could replace mulesing by better blowfly control, or by raising sheep that have less-wrinkly skin. Australia is already promoting sheep breeds with smoother-skinned rumps as an alternative to raising and mulesing Merino sheep.
Other Painful Problems Caused By Wool Production
Sheep subjected to mulesing usually have their tails docked (partially removed) in the process to further reduce the risk of flystrike.
Ranchers castrate male lambs within a few days of birth. Painkillers are approved for the procedure, but are not legally required or commonly used.
Sheep raised in wetter climates are prone to fleece rot and foot rot. Fleece rot often results in flystrike. Foot rot can cause the hoof to separate from soft tissue, which is so painful that affected sheep may refuse to stand on their feet.
Additionally, an estimated 15-23 percent of sheep in New South Wales alone are infected with lice.
And because large-scale ranches raise most of the sheep, it is not unusual for medical problems to go unnoticed.
Sheep ranchers send the animals to slaughter once their wool production declines. Most sheep are held in overcrowded feedlots, packed tightly into ships or trucks, denied food and water for extended periods, and exported to countries with few slaughter regulations. Many sheep die in transit.
Danger to Native Species
Sheep are native to Europe and Asia, and ecosystems of non-native areas can be damaged by large-scale sheep grazing. As an example, Australian sheep ranchers often view animals that are actually native to their country as pests. Ranchers raising sheep for wool kill an estimated five million kangaroos each year in Australia.
What To Do About It
Cotton or other plant textiles are an excellent alternative to wool (and other animal-based textiles). A growing number of companies such as H&M, Abercrombie & Fitch, John Lewis, Perry Ellis, Hugo Boss, Adidas and Liz Claiborne are boycotting Australian Merino wool. The growing demand for more eco-friendly plant-based fibers is making it easier to buy clothing and accessories that are more humane and do not require animals in their production.