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 (previously PR, now AA). 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. In July 2021, a new category was added allowing wool growers to declare use of liquid nitrogen, with or without pain relief (LA or LN, respectively), as an alternative to mulesing. 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 74% as at July 2021 compared to 38% in 2008 when the NWD was first introduced . The percentage declared ‘non mulesed’ and ‘ceased mulesed’ was 15% and 4% respectively and the percentage of bales declared that pain relief was used was 41% . 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 2020 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 ‘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 painful procedures to change the breech area (including sheep freeze branding) are used, the sheep could be categorised as not mulesed (NM).
The 2021 review of the NWD finally recognised that alternative ‘mulesing’ methods should not be lumped into the same category as ‘non mulesed’ wool but instead should have their own category. Wool growers using liquid nitrogen (i.e. sheep freeze branding) must, from January 2022, declare this on the NWD including whether they have provided pain relief or not. These new mulesing status categories are to be identified as LA and LN, respectively. This added transparency means that wool buyers seeking wool from sheep who have not been subjected to mulesing or sheep freeze branding are 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.
 Australian Wool Exchange – AWEX (2017) National Wool Declaration Frequently Asked Questions. Australian Wool Exchange Limited, June 2017.
 Australian Wool Exchange – AWEX (2021) Static auction mulesing status statistics by micron.
 Australian Wool Exchange – AWEX (2021) National Wool Declaration test and auction data.
 Australian Wool Exchange – AWEX (2018) ‘Declaring what the world is demanding’. BoardTalk January 2018, Australian Wool Exchange Limited.