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Mulesing was developed in 1927 and for over 80 years it has been a routine surgical husbandry procedure for the majority of sheep in Australia. Sheep, especially Merinos, have woolly wrinkles and folds in their skin, around the tail and breech (back and top of hind legs under tail) area, which can become moist with urine and contaminated with faeces. Blowflies are attracted to this moist area where they lay eggs. Eggs generally hatch into larvae (maggots) within 12-24 hours and feed off the flesh of the sheep for up to 3 days— this is called flystrike, which, if left untreated, is fatal. Blowfly activity is generally highest in spring, when weather conditions are warm and moist.
RSPCA Australia believes that farm animal husbandry and management practices should provide for the behavioural, social and physiological needs of the individual animal and not cause unnecessary injury, suffering or distress. 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 likely to attract blowflies. This makes mulesed sheep less susceptible to flystrike.
Research shows the pain of mulesing is similar to that of castration (removing testicles in ram lambs), 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. Mulesing should not be needed on properties that are in a low risk area and on properties where producers actively select and breed for fly and worm resistance. Animals that will be sold for slaughter prior to the high flystrike risk period do not need to be mulesed. Mulesing 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 urges 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 continuing.
A needle-less injection of a solution of sodium lauryl sulphate enters the skin and causes the skin to contract. The solution denatures the protein in the skin which causes a scab to form and then fall off. This leaves stretched and bare skin around the breech and tail with reduced wool. Regulatory approval has been given for SkinTraction with stringent label use requirements.
Gene mapping the sheep blowfly
This project involves mapping blowfly genes to find ones that could be useful for fly control such as odour detection for seeking susceptible sheep, i.e. suitable for eggs to be laid. 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. Research has shown promise into the difference in odour of fly attractive versus repellent sheep. There is also ongoing research into wool odour and skin bacteria.
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 as described above. While ever mulesing is conducted, it should only be done by an operator assessed to be competent and using pain relief.
A cumulative effect to increase a flock’s overall resistance to flystrike can be achieved with a breeding and selection program that aims to:
To date, the wool industry has not demonstrated that producers are reducing their reliance on mulesing. There is no evidence of a trend showing a steady decline in the number of sheep being mulesed as a proportion of the total flock (Merinos versus non-Merinos). It is imperative that the industry shows progress in relation to adoption of improved management and breeding practices to minimise the number of sheep mulesed in Australia.