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What are the animal welfare issues with individual housing of sheep?

The permanent housing of sheep in a single pen for the purpose of fine wool production was effectively banned in the Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Sheep. In the states and territories where the Standards have been implemented, it is therefore illegal to permanently house sheep in individual pens. The RSPCA understands that there are likely no such wool production systems left in Australia.

Shedded sheep were sometimes called ‘Sharlea sheep’ because they were first kept in sheds at a Victorian property of that name. Shedded sheep were kept in group pens or in individual stalls within a large shed for up to five years. Wool from shedded sheep was premium ultra-fine wool.

Other sheep may spend some time in sheds, often in individual pens. For example, they may be stud rams and ewes in breeding programs or sheep used in research projects.

Some ultra-fine wool came from sheep on pasture, but the finest wool used to come from shedded sheep. By housing sheep indoors it was possible to have more control over the selection, feeding, fibre length, fibre diameter, tensile strength and style of their wool. The ability to manipulate the nutrition of the shedded sheep means it was possible to produce wool that is several microns finer than it otherwise would be. Low-energy rations were used to produce fine diameter wool fibres. Further, wool damage and soiling was reduced by keeping sheep in individual small pens and rugging them.

Controlling nutrition is the most effective way to produce ultra-fine wool. However, in shedded systems, it comes with problems:

  • feeding may be restricted to a bare minimum of energy required to maintain life
  • the nutritional value of the feed can be very poor
  • restricted feeding affects a sheep’s digestive function
  • shed rations are small, especially if they are pelleted
  • daily rations are eaten quickly, leaving nothing to do all day
  • a sheep’s natural behaviour is to graze for 50% of each day
  • behavioural problems often develop to compensate for boredom in sheds.

The RSPCA believes housing can be justified for animal welfare reasons, for example, for temporary protection against bad weather or predators. Housing for production only cannot be justified. Sheep are intensely social animals and being part of a flock is fundamental to their wellbeing. Therefore, shedding and individual penning is very stressful.

These are some of the welfare issues associated with shedded sheep:

  • their nutrition is a major welfare concern
  • vitamin and mineral deficiencies can develop
  • 5–15% of sheep do not adjust to being indoors and some stop eating
  • sheep cannot form social groups or establish a personal zone
  • normal sleeping, drinking and digestion are affected by chronic stress
  • sheep that are stressed are likely to suffer from disease and parasites
  • pens are too small for natural movement — stretching, laying down, turning around, walking and running
  • foot problems are common from constantly standing on hard surfaces
  • bacterial infections can result from an altered environment in the gut
  • stones in the urine may result from not drinking enough water
  • sheep suffer without temperature control in sheds — they cannot flock together to keep warm in the cold and, in the heat, rugging sheep can lead to overheating.

Studies show that:

  • sheep suffer acute stress due to change of environment and diet
  • sheep are stressed by the lack of flock structure and space to move
  • chronic stress may come from continuing poor nutrition, noise, bright lighting, changes to routine or poor stockmanship
  • stress continues because sheep cannot escape from the stressors
  • long-term confinement and chronic stress lead to changes in a sheep’s normal behaviour.

Behavioural problems seen in shedded sheep include:

  • wool biting
  • chewing slats, bars, buckets or pen fixtures
  • mouthing air and repetitive licking
  • increased vocalisation
  • panting (without heat stress)
  • obsessive movements such as rearing, butting, leaping and weaving.

The RSPCA is opposed to farming practices which cause suffering or distress to animals, or which restrict their movements or natural behaviour. Shedding sheep for fine-wool production does all of these, with the obvious potential for poor animal welfare.

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Updated on September 1, 2021
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