Counting sheep

G Magazine

A natural material that has helped keep us warm through many winters, wool has become an Aussie cold weather essential. But is the very fibre itself being pulled over our eyes when it comes to the high ethical & enviro impact of this popular thread?

Wooly sheep

Credit: iStockphoto

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The frosty months of winter sees us reach into the closet for woolly wonders in the forms of jumpers, socks, blankets, scarves and beanies. It makes sense to rug up in warm clothes as the temperature drops, especially when for every one degree you turn up the heater, your household energy use increases by 15 per cent. Wool has a long-held reputation as a natural, lightweight, breathable, stylish and warm fabric; but when it comes to animal cruelty and the environment, how do its eco-credentials stack up?

Being naturally crimped, little gaps between wool fibres trap air, making it the perfect insulator. Wool holds colour dyes well, resists dirt and wrinkles, has low allergens, anti-microbial properties, doesn’t hold static electricity and has a low fire danger compared to other common textiles. With so many benefits, it’s little wonder wool receives the accolades it does.

Today, Australian wool is a $2.3 billion industry that employs thousands of people in regional and rural areas, providing a quarter of the world’s wool and 85 per cent of the world’s fine apparel wool.

But despite such large yields, Australia is lagging behind the rest of the world as retailers and consumers demand more ethical and environmental products.

A curly topic

Merino sheep have long been prized for their super fine wool; it’s thought they’ve been domesticated for 12,000 years. Originally from a cool-climate in the hills of Turkey, modern merino’s are bred to have folds in the skin so there’s more wool per animal, but this means dirt and feces get caught in their oily wool – and in a hot climate like Australia this dirty wool is perfect for flies to lay their eggs in, leading to fly strike – commonly dealt with by mulesing.

“Mulesing is basically the chopping off with shear-like instruments the butts of sheep – the idea is to scar the area to prevent maggot infestation,” says Jason Baker, campaigns director for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Australia.

“It’s extremely painful and traumatic to the lambs,” says Baker. “An alternative to mulesing is breeding bare-breeched sheep; which means they have a bare butt and don’t get fly strike… intensively, this can be breed into a flock in just two years.”

“There are already, according to the wool industry, 20 per cent of farmers who don’t mules.”

“But the Australian wool industry isn’t talking about alternatives; instead they’ve spent 10 million dollars over the last eight years fighting PETA… meanwhile the New Zealand wool industry has skyrocketed in demand because people now want mulsed-free wool and they can guarantee it.”

“I think as a whole mulesing isn’t the only issue people are thinking about. It’s the entire industry across the board on farming and ethical practices behind it,” says Baker.

Funded by woolgrowers and the government, the Australian Wool Industry (AWI) is currently responsible for the marketing and research and development for the industry. They have suggested their long-term aim is to remove the need for mulesing, however significant progress is still yet to be seen in this area.

Wooly wash

In addition to fly strike, merinos are also likely to get pests such as lice and mites in warm climates. To combat this efficiently, farmers apply chemicals to the wool of sheep via sheep dipping or sheep jetting. Some of the chemicals in these sprays are so strong that they can last for up to six months.

In 2009, the federal government’s Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) had to ban the use of a particular chemical, diazinon, for dipping and jetting because of safety concerns. “Workers who were exposed to moderate to high levels of diazinon became ill,” says Simon Cubit, spokesperson for APVMA.

Cubit says that the chemicals used today are better and “should not present undue risk to human health, the environment, the sheep themselves and trade”.

However, consumers are becoming more aware of the long-term environmental effects of chemical insecticides. In 2005, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) of North America noted an increasing demand for organic wool.

Wool in Australia can be only certified organic if the sheep are not treated with any artificial products – including dips, jetting, drenches or antibiotics. ‘Organic’ sheep are stocked at a lower number than conventional farms, encouraging cleaner pastures, increased sheep nutrition and better soil health on the farm.

The OTA is one of many organisations that recognises organic farming methods can help to remedy land-use problems – an important consideration for Australia when 41 per cent of our woolgrowers have indicated being affected by dryland salinity caused by clearing vegetation from land and grazing hard-hoofed animals such as sheep.

Furthermore, the greasy raw wool requires hot water and chemicals to clean off the wool wax, dirt and pesticide residues. The water and energy intensive process called scouring is also highly polluting. A typical Australian wool-scouring plant is equivalent to the sewerage from a town of around 50,000 people.

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