The practice to mules sheep will be criminalised in New Zealand next month after a landmark animal welfare act bans the surgical procedure.
The NZ Government has moved to ban practice to remove part of the sheep’s breech, tail skin folds and tail skin wrinkles, which will carry a criminal conviction and a $5000 penalty for an individual offender and $25,000 for a body corporate from 1 October.
Despite the State Government set to overhaul its Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986 as part of its first Animal Welfare Action Plan, announced in January, Agriculture Minister Jaala Pulford said the mulesing practice in Victoria would not be immediately impacted by NZ’s move.
“The action plan does not change the current requirements for mulesing practice in Victoria,” Ms Pulford said in a statement.
However, with the Action Plan set to recognise that animals are sentient beings, which can feel pain and pleasure, industry sources believe attention on Victoria’s mulesing position was inevitable.
The Code of Accepted Farming Practice for the Welfare of Sheep, set out in the current Act, defends mulesing as “lifetime protection against fly strike”, fails to acknowledge the use of pain relief as a new treatment, and refers to the failed industry commitment to ban the practice by 2010.
Ms Pulford said Victoria’s sheep industry needed to assess the NZ ban and “we will be informed by industry”.
Behind the times
According to sheep and wool producer and former Australian Wool Innovation board member, Chick Olsson, the Australian wool industry had fallen behind the eight ball.
“The Australian wool industry has fallen so far behind that it is going to be hard to recover. Europe is ahead and NZ is ahead,” Mr Olsson said.
“Mulesing is affecting lamb sales, it is affecting our reputation overseas and NZ have just completely drop-kicked the ball at full-time to win the game.
“They have clearly identified consumers’ preferences and they have legislated to match those preferences.”
The NZ industry began phasing out mulesing in 2007 following pressure from animal rights activists.
Moves to legislate the changes in NZ escalated in 2016 when the Department of Primary Industries initially released a consultation document with 85 proposed changes to the country’s Animal Welfare (Care and Procedures) Act.
As news of the NZ ban filtered across the ditch this week, some Australian woolgrowers were asking if the local industry should follow a similar path.
While consumer pressure has been mounting to improve welfare standards, WoolProducers Australia chief executive Jo Hall said mandating pain relief for surgical procedures and mulesing was limited by state governments’ legislation.
“Those expectations change over time so the wool industry must be in a phase of continual improvement when it comes to animal welfare and animal husbandry practices,” Ms Hall said.
“We need to be moving with, if not ahead of those expectations. Last year we reviewed and changed our policy on pain relief to state that ‘if you mules, you must apply pain relief’.
“We spoke about mandatory application of pain relief, but the reality is that is a state government issue. WPA cannot mandate the use of pain relief.
“Animal welfare is number one for Australian woolgrowers so we can’t see why they wouldn’t use pain relief.
“At the very least we need to be meeting community expectations, but it would be even better if we were exceeding community expectations around the treatment of animals.”
According to Ms Hall, the increased use of the national wool declaration (NWD) could help address negative perception.
“We need to be declaring what we are producing,” she said.
“Usage rates for the use of pain relief are increasing and it is heartening to hear that they are increasing, but we have to get it much higher.”
Pain relief position
Australian Wool Exchange national wool declaration (NDW) figures report about 30 per cent of the country’s woolgrowers use pain relief after surgical procedures.
AWEX senior market analyst Lionel Plunkett, said non-mulsed offerings in the Australian market had increased, as have the premiums paid for those type of wools.
“Earlier on it was a bit hit and miss just because of the way the exporters operate – they need a reasonable quantity before they can sell confidently,” Mr Plunkett said.
“We now get more than one player on those lots in the market at any one time, which is what you need – you need that bit of tension in the market place for those lots.
“Now it is quite consistent and would be fair to say that those premiums are increasing.”
Slice of small pie
However, Australian Wool Innovation board director Jock Laurie said NZ was a smaller player in the global wool market than Australia, with numbers declining in favour of meat sheep and expanding dairy herds.
The global wool industry produces about 1.14 million metric tonnes of wool (clean equivalent) annually.
About 22.8 per cent is drawn from Australia, 15.7pc from China and 9.8pc from NZ . Argentina, and South Africa both account for 2.3pc of global wool production, according to the International Wool Textile Organisation.
Sydney University professor Peter Windsor, who has been researching and developing pain relief for surgical procedures on farm since 2005, said responsible farmers that perform mulesing use pain relief.
“It makes a spectacular difference to the animals, the evidence is overwhelming. Mulesing without pain relief is a welfare travesty,” Mr Windsor said.
“We are at risk of being shut out of the market. We have to have a strong argument that mulesing is an interim procedure, that will be phased out, but in the interim period we should be encouraging everybody to use pain relief.
“The only argument is, why isn’t pain relief for mulesing mandatory? I guess the problem is, if you do make it mandatory, how do you get compliance?”