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What is mulesing and what are the alternatives?
Mulesing was developed in 1927 and for over 80 years it has been a routine husbandry procedure for the majority of merino sheep in Australia. Merinos have woolly wrinkles and folds in their skin, which, around the tail and breech area, become moist with urine and contaminated with faeces. Particularly in hot and humid conditions, blowflies are attracted to this moist area where they lay eggs. Eventually the eggs hatch and maggots eat away at the flesh of the live animal — this is flystrike.
Mulesing involves cutting flaps of skin from around a lamb’s breech and tail to create an area of bare, stretched skin. Because the scarred skin has no folds or wrinkles to hold moisture and faeces, it is less attractive to blowflies. This makes mulesed merinos less susceptible to flystrike.
Research shows the pain of mulesing is similar to that of castration, but it lasts longer (up to 48 hours). The RSPCA is opposed to practices that cause suffering or distress to animals and does not accept that mulesing should be performed as a routine husbandry procedure. It should be the last option farmers choose to control flystrike and only when the risk of flystrike is very high.
The RSPCA view on mulesing is that:
Alternatives to mulesing
Public pressure to improve sheep welfare has led to the wool industry researching alternatives to mulesing. The RSPCA supports work on safe and humane ways to reduce flystrike and encourages industry to give this priority. Various studies are underway, including:
Breeding offers the only long-term solution. The genetic traits that can be bred out of sheep to reduce flystrike have been found. They are: wrinkles; a bare area around the breech and tail; resistance to worms; susceptibility to diarrhoea; and the amount of wax and moisture in the fleece. Results of breeding trials over many years are positive and the work is being scaled up.
Clips give a result similar to mulesing, but without an open wound and with significantly less pain. They prevent blood flow to the skin that would be removed by mulesing. This skin and the clips fall off within a couple of weeks leaving a bare area around the lamb’s breech and tail. Some producers report they feel confident they could stop mulesing and use clips to control flystrike.
Injection into the skin
An injection kills the skin cells, a bruise forms, followed by a scab which falls off. This leaves stretched and bare skin around the breech and tail. The technology is not yet fully developed.
Gene mapping the sheep blowfly
This project involves mapping blowfly genes to find ones that could be useful for fly control. Mapping will be the basis for future work on insecticides or vaccines. There is also the potential for mass release of male blowflies that are genetically altered to be sterile.
What can be done now?
The key to effectively managing flystrike in the absence of mulesing is an integrated approach to blowfly control. Such an approach includes animal husbandry and farm management practices that take into account the timing of shearing and crutching, the timing of tail docking (should that be required), strategic application of chemical treatments (should they be required) and, importantly, regular inspection of the flock. While ever mulesing is conducted, it should be accompanied by the use of topical pain relief.
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