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What is mulesing and what are the alternatives?

Article ID: 113
Last updated: 12 May, 2016
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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:

  • it should not be done if other humane procedures can be used to protect sheep from flystrike and include the following integrated approaches;
    • the timing of shearing and crutching
    • effective tail docking (where required)
    • strategic application of preventative chemical treatments to prevent flystrike (where required)
    • effective control of scouring (especially the control of intestinal worms)
    • regular inspection (daily during high risk periods) of the flock
    • genetic improvement to breed sheep with low wrinkle, less dags, less urine stain and less wool around the breech
  • it must only be used as a management procedure in areas where it is known it will reduce the incidence of flystrike
  • it must only be performed by a competent person on a well-restrained lamb that is less than 12 weeks of age AND using appropriate pain relief
  • older animals require anaesthesia during mulesing and aftercare to assist healing
  • lambs should not be mulesed if they are sold for slaughter at an early age prior to the high flystrike risk period.

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.

SkinTraction ®

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.

Other initiatives

  • There is a project on controlling worms, lice and flies to reduce reliance on chemical control. It uses natural enemies or other biological agents, as finding alternatives to chemicals is important because parasites are becoming resistant.
  • Liquid Nitrogen Proof of Concept project. Preliminary results indicate that liquid nitrogen may produce bare skin edges on the tail. Initial results suggest that welfare impacts are much milder than mulesing. However, further more extensive field trials are continuing.
  • Laser Technology Proof of Concept: An initial scoping study into the suitability of laser technology to permanently remove wool from the skin of sheep failed the proof of concept assessment. Further development of the technology used is needed before progressing.
  • There is a new National Mulesing Accreditation Program (NMAP) currently being developed by Animal Health Australia and WoolProducers Australia. This program is endorsed under the Australian Qualifications Framework and will train and assess mulesing operators to a national standard. It is aimed at all contractors and owners who mules sheep. Accreditation teaches operators how to achieve the best health and welfare standards until an alternative to mulesing is found. Unfortunately it is only a voluntary scheme but should be made mandatory.
  • Woolgrowers can complete a form (National Wool Declaration) when selling wool to certify they do not mules or mules with pain relief. A small premium is offered for declaring your mulesing status and higher premiums can be achieved with direct sales.
  • There is a post-mulesing topical spray (Tri-Solfen®) available for pain relief, which is applied immediately after mulesing. Tri-Solfen is available to producers to buy over the counter. However, it is not compulsory to use Tri-Solfen when mulesing and only about 60% of lambs currently mulesed in Australia have Tri-Solfen applied.

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:

  • reduce wrinkle and dags,
  • increase the bare area in the breech region and
  • remove sheep susceptible to flystrike from the flock.

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.

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Attached files
file Prevention and control of flystrike in sheep – RSPCA Research Report Aug 2011.pdf (169 kb) Download

Also read
folder Why are painful procedures performed without anaesthetic?
folder Why can't the RSPCA prosecute farmers for performing painful husbandry procedures without anaesthetic or pain relief?

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folder Farm animals -> Animal husbandry

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