Sheep

Sheep production & welfare

Sheep alternate between periods of grazing and rest, spending most of their time ruminating. Approximately 2/3 of sheep are concentrated on hill and upland areas which are dominated by extensive grazing land. This land is usually not suitable for other types of agriculture. The remaining 1/3 are kept in lowland areas (2).
There are more than 60 different breeds of sheep in Britain, with the Scottish Blackface breed most common (1,3).  The average breeding life of female sheep (ewes) is up to 15 years; however the vast majority are slaughtered by the age of 6 years.

Ewes become sexually mature at around 7-9 months. Some farmers may choose to breed ewes at this age, however, it is common to breed ewes when they are approximately 1-1 ½ years old. The most common method of reproduction used in sheep is ‘tupping'. This involves the copulation of a tup (male ram) with a ewe. Artificial insemination is more uncommon in sheep although new techniques are being developed to make it more efficient. Rams (uncastrated male sheep) are usually from special breeding farms. A single ram will usually serve 20-30 ewes. The Texel breed of sheep has become very prominent in the industry, being the most numerous ram breed in Britain and the largest lowland purebred ewe breed (1). A ewe’s gestation period is about 5 months. Lambs are generally born in spring/summer when the weather is warmer and grass is growing, with annual lambing (every 12 months) being the most common. Once lambs reach 3-4 weeks their milk diet is supplemented with grass/feed concentrates. Half of the lambs produced are from lowland flocks which are sold before weaning from the ewe. Strong single lambs from early lambing flocks are weaned from 2 months, fed supplementary feed, and sold at market between 10-12 weeks (3).

Selective breeding has altered the sheep’s natural breeding patterns meaning some are able to lamb twice a year. Selective breeding has also encouraged ewes to have twins or triplets rather than a single lamb. If a ewe has only a single lamb the unborn may grow too large to pass through the narrow birth canal. Embryotomy, the dissection and removal of a foetus which cannot be delivered naturally, should only be carried out on dead lambs. The DEFRA Code of Recommendations for the Welfare of Livestock states that this should never be used to remove a live lamb (1). Approximately 15% of lambs which are born annually die. The major causes for this being abortion, stillbirth, exposure, starvation, infectious diseases, congenital defects and predators (1). Sometimes there may be too many lambs in the flock (due to multiple births or the death of ewes). These orphan lambs may be auctioned at markets at only a few days old. The law forbids the transport and sale at market of lambs with an unhealed navel (i.e. a very young lamb). However, in practice this has not stopped lambs as young as 2-3 days old from being sent to market because the navel can heal at a very early age. These lambs are especially prone to disease and mortality is high. The law also states that wherever possible, young lambs, other than with their mothers, should not be sold at market.

Male lambs may be castrated before they reach 3 months of age if they are to be retained after sexual maturity. The vast majority of lambs are generally not castrated in the UK as they are slaughtered before sexual maturity. The most common method of castration is the application of a tight rubber ring which cuts off the blood supply. This method is prohibited without anaesthetic provided the ring is applied within the first week of life.

Once a lamb is over 3 months of age castration may only be performed by a veterinary surgeon using a suitable anaesthetic. Tail docking of lambs may also occur without anaesthetic. Under the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966, only a veterinary surgeon may dehorn or disbud a sheep. These routine husbandry procedures are known to induce pain and distress in lambs (4,5). Studies attempting to quantify a lamb’s pain experience rely on behavioural and physiological indicators of pain. Between 15-25% of ewes are culled each year because of lameness, poor health or failing to lamb. These are replaced in the flock. Flock stocking densities are steadily increasing, causing environmental problems in upland areas as overgrazing by sheep leads to loss of vegetation and soil erosion. Some sheep are housed indoors during the winter in enclosed sheds or barns. These may be poorly lit with concrete or slatted floors.

Mulesing

This is the practise of removing wool-bearing skin from the tail and breech area of sheep. It involves slicing away the folds of skin from beneath the sheep's tail which forms a wool-free scar. This is intended to control fly-strike (blowflies lay their eggs in the damp wool and the larvae eating into the flesh of the living sheep). The current position of Mulesing in the UK, according to DEFRA, is as follows; Mulesing remains an act of veterinary surgery under the Veterinary surgeons Act 1966 and is not covered by an exemption under the Mutilations (Permitted Procedures) (England) Regulations 2007 (as amended) (1).   Mulesing occurs commonly in Australia, they are the world's leading sheep producer and exporter with a national flock of an estimated 135 million sheep.  Mulesing is done at a recommended age between 2 -12 weeks old. 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". Antiseptics are often applied, but anaesthesia and painkillers are not required during or after the procedure. The wool industry has proposed that surgical mulesing will be phased out by 2010 (6). Around 100 million sheep suffer from mulesing each year. Australia’s export industry of wool amounts to approximately $3.5 billion each year (7).  

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