What is the National Wool Declaration?
In 2008, the Australian Wool Exchange (through which around 90% of Australian wool is sold) introduced the National Wool Declaration (NWD). This declaration allows wool growers to voluntarily communicate the mulesing status of their sheep to wool buyers at auction . Wool growers are asked to declare, on a mob (group) basis, whether wool from that mob is from sheep that have not been mulesed (NM), whether some or all sheep have been mulesed (M), or whether all sheep were mulesed using pain relief (PR). If sheep are no longer mulesed on the property (and haven’t been for the last 12 months), then the grower declares ‘ceased mulesing’ (CM). Each of these categories attracts a premium per kilogram of wool sold at auction. At the same time, declaring mulesing status allows wool growers to demonstrate their animal welfare credentials to wool buyers – particularly those that are interested in buying wool from sheep that have not been mulesed.
Mulesing is a painful procedure that involves cutting crescent-shaped flaps of skin from around a lamb’s breech and tail using sharp shears. The resulting wound, when healed, creates an area of bare, stretched scar tissue. Because the scarred skin has no folds or wrinkles to hold moisture and faeces, it is less likely to attract blowflies. This makes mulesed sheep less susceptible to flystrike in the breech area.
What does the NWD tell us about mulesing practice?
The national percentage of bales with mulesing status declared was 65% as at 31 October 2017 . At that time, the percentage declared ‘non mulesed’ or ‘ceased mulesed’ was 12.7% and the percentage of bales declared that pain relief was used was 27.7% . Even assuming that the remainder of bales, i.e. those without NWDs, had similar mulesing status declarations, considerably more work needs to be done towards achieving a phase out of mulesing and, in the interim, 100% uptake of pain relief.
Growing interest in mulesing status from wool buyers has seen a significant increase in premiums. Clearly and encouragingly, the market preference is for wool from sheep that are not (or no longer) mulesed. Interest is also rising in declaration status of all wool (not just fine wool) as well as non-Merino wool, evidenced by discounts routinely being applied to bales that have not been declared .
Because the National Wool Declaration is voluntary, it is difficult to accurately track progress towards an end to mulesing and, in the interim, the extent to which mulesing is carried out with pain relief.
A recent review of the National Wool Declaration saw the PR (pain relief) category changed to AA (pre- and/or post-analgesic/anaesthetic). There is currently no pre-anaesthetic available for mulesing. There is a topical anaesthetic spray which can be applied after the painful procedure has taken place, however there is nothing that numbs the pain of the mulesing procedure itself. The AA category risks misleading wool buyers into thinking they are purchasing wool from lambs that have felt little to no pain during and after mulesing. Nothing could be further from the truth.
How does ‘steining’ or ‘sheep freeze branding’ fit within the National Wool Declaration?
The NWD definition of mulesing limits the procedure to the use of shears. This effectively means that where other breech modification methods (including steining) are used, the sheep would be categorised as not mulesed (NM).
The recent review of the NWD failed to recognise alternative methods to mulesing and therefore essentially lumped those wool growers who are not mulesing, but instead breeding flystrike-resistant sheep, into the same category as people using liquid nitrogen (i.e. steining or sheep freeze branding) or other technologies that reduce wrinkle by modifying the lamb’s breech. This lack of transparency means wool buyers seeking wool from lambs who have not been mulesed nor had their breech modified in another way, are not able to make fully informed choices.
What is the RSPCA’s position?
The RSPCA believes that declaring mulesing status on the NWD must be mandatory. This would allow the wool industry to demonstrate their commitment to improving animal welfare, enable customers to make an informed choice, and provide the necessary transparency to be able to monitor progress towards a long-awaited phase-out of mulesing.
It is important that wool buyers who are seeking to source wool with good animal welfare credentials are able to easily identify that product. This means introducing an additional category, e.g. ‘other breech modification’, to the NWD. The wool industry should be transparent about their current practices and wool buyers should be able to make fully informed choices. The NWD must therefore include specific information about the breech modification that has occurred.