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Mulesing was developed in 1927 and involves cutting flaps of skin from 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' where fly maggots feed off the flesh of the sheep. Mulesing is a painful procedure and the RSPCA believes that it is unacceptable to continue to breed sheep that are susceptible to flystrike and therefore require an on-going need for mulesing (or other breech modification procedure) to manage flystrike risk. At the very least, pain relief should be used where mulesing is still considered necessary.
In 2008, the Australian Wool Exchange (through which around 90% of Australian wool is auctioned) 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 (AWEX 2017). Wool growers are asked to declare, on a mob 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.
The national percentage of bales with mulesing status declared was 65% as at 31 October 2017 (AWEX 2018). 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% (AWEX 2018). 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 from wool buyers in mulesing status 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 (AWEX2018).
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.
It is the RSPCA’s view that declaring mulesing status on the NWD must be mandatory. This would not only allow the wool industry to demonstrate their commitment to improving animal welfare and to provide transparency to the market and the opportunity for customers to make an informed choice, but also provide stakeholders with the ability 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 (2018) ‘Declaring what the world is demanding’. BoardTalk January 2018, Australian Wool Exchange Limited.