Cashmere is a fine fibre that is obtained from Cashmere goats and other similar breeds. The animal welfare issues relate largely to the collection of this fibre, which in many parts of the world is done using a metal comb with sharp teeth. The combing process is painful and prolonged, particularly if collection is carried out when the goat is not naturally moulting, and can result in bruising and injuries.
Cashmere is considered a luxury fibre, and for many years, it was highly demanded worldwide by textile markets due to its unique thermal insulator characteristics; cashmere is finer, lighter, softer, stronger and approximately three times more insulating than sheep wool . However, more recently, increased awareness of the welfare issues in the cashmere industry has prompted a number of retailers to place a ban on cashmere products or limit their range.
Where is cashmere produced?
Cashmere production originally started around the 13th century, in the Kashmir region (northern India) and, currently, China and Mongolia are the main producers of cashmere. China is the largest, producing about 19,200 metric tonnes (in hair) per year (2016); while Mongolia produces about 8,900 tonnes per year. Mongolia is followed by Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and Kyrgyzstan . In comparison, cashmere production in Australia and New Zealand is very small; these countries produce less than 5 tonnes annually .
How is cashmere collected?
Cashmere is currently collected by two different methods:
- In Asia, America and most Middle Eastern countries, the cashmere is typically removed by hand using a metal comb with sharp teeth. This process occurs every spring when the goats are ready to moult (which refers to the natural period of the change of wool).
- In Iran, Afghanistan, New Zealand and Australia goats are shorn of their fleece. In Australia, this occurs in June or July, which is prior to the moulting period. This method is sometimes less preferred by producers as it results in a lower pure cashmere yield.
Animal welfare concerns
Cashmere collection – combing
Collection through combing is not performed in Australia.
The main animal welfare concerns with cashmere production relate to the collecting process of the fibre. The animal welfare concerns with the combing method include the following:
- All four legs of the goat are usually tied up. At this stage, poor handling and poor immobilisation are likely to cause increased fear and stress.
- The combing process itself can be painful. The ends of the combing teeth are sharp, which can scratch the skin of the goats, leading to bruising and injuries.
- Duration of combing is prolonged; on average, it takes about 1h to remove all the cashmere wool from a goat. Therefore, goats may suffer from protracted pain and stress during this procedure.
- Some goats that are not moulting during the cashmere collection time may experience more pain and distress during combing. This is a result of moulting times potentially varying within a herd, as the moulting season influenced by the age, breed and genetics of goats.
While there is a lack of scientific research on this topic, the stress and pain produced by the combing method could likely be reduced by ensuring that the handling of goats is performed in a low-stress manner. Combing should be performed slowly and carefully, ensuring not to yank the comb when it gets stuck in tangled hair to avoid unnecessary pain. However, controls and standards to ensure combing is performed in a low-stress manner are lacking .
Cashmere collection – shearing
Shearing is much faster than combing, but poor handling during shearing can also result in increased fear, distress and potentially skin injuries causing unnecessary stress and pain. In addition, goats are generally only shorn during winter or early spring when weather conditions can be cold and windy , which means that adequate farm management is essential in order to prevent welfare issues such as hypothermia after they are shorn.
Husbandry and management
The environment in which goats are held, general management and husbandry practices are other welfare concerns with cashmere production, including the following:
- Goats are often kept under extensive conditions, which means that monitoring and human intervention is limited. Animals that have compromised welfare may go unnoticed and/or untreated for long periods of time causing prolonged stress, pain and suffering.
- Lack of adequate food and water, particularly in Asian and Middle Eastern countries, where the quality and quantity of the pasture is very poor during winter and spring, and supplementary feeding is not a common management practice.
- Goats also often have limited access to shade and shelter which leaves them more exposed to extreme heat during summer and extreme cold during winter.
- Goats are also more exposed to predation and contagious diseases, and veterinary intervention is rare.
- Painful procedures such as castration are usually carried out without pain relief.
While the cashmere industry is associated with many welfare concerns, studies assessing and addressing goat welfare in the industry are lacking, and these issues need further investigation.
What is the RSPCA’s view?
The RSPCA does not support the combing of goats with a sharp-toothed comb. It is a prolonged procedure that can lead to bruising and skin injuries, and cause unnecessary and extended pain, suffering and distress in goats.
The RSPCA believes the stress experienced by goats during shearing (as carried out in Australia) can be reduced by handling goats in a low-stress manner, ensuring shearers are trained and competent in best practice technique to reduce the risk of skin injuries and ensuring the appropriate treatment of wounds and injuries when required.
In addition, good planning and management are necessary to prevent hypothermia in shorn goats. All goat farms in Australia should at the very least comply with the Australian industry welfare standards and guidelines for goats .
Consumers can help reduce the unnecessary suffering of goats kept for cashmere production by making informed purchasing decisions. Ask the retailer or check the cashmere product for animal welfare certifications. Where certification schemes are in place, their standards must be publicly available and participating farms must be subject to regular as well as unannounced on-farm audits to ensure animal welfare is not compromised.
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