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The ethics of wool

 
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I remember one particular picture I saw on social media: a freshly shorn sheep with big, bloody gashes from the shears.

I deduced immediately what had happened. It probably happened on a large, industrial sheep ranch. If the shearer is paid by piece work, that is an incentive to shear as fast as they possibly can, to get the most fleeces during the workday. If the shearer is paid by the hour, that is an incentive to the employer to hire the fastest shearers, which in turn is an incentive for the shearer to shear as fast as they possibly can, to improve their likelihood of being employed. Taking care to avoid hurting the sheep adds up to fewer fleeces per unit time, so there is an economic disincentive to do so. It was a bookkeeping decision.

Now, on Permies, we do not advocate Big Ag. But mom-and-pop operations also face economic pressure -- perhaps even more so, since they do not have economies of scale on their side. I doubt if many of us have figured out a way to live without money. Certainly nobody I know has. And that means that if fleeces are part of one's income source, there is an incentive to increase efficiency in shearing, which can conflict with the concern I hope we all have for our animals' wellbeing. I don't want to ramble, and am having difficulty formulating a question, but basically, I am turning over in my mind the ethics involved when living beings are also units of economic production. This is a conundrum we face.
 
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My family joined in with another family's sheep shearing last week. There were a couple of tiny injuries, but no more than someone shaving themselves with a razor would get.

There's a lot of skill to shearing a sheep, and the right techniques are used to avoid harm.

A lot of people like to share images of animal farming going wrong. Anyone could do the same with monoculture cropping and industrial textile production, but a lot of people find these problems more difficult to understand than a picture of a sad animal.
 
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Sure... i cut the extra felted wool of my ewe with scisors and I did not count my time, I have only one!

I am sure professionals do their best. Thus I bother about what is on my side as a consumer: be it for any other animal and even plant product, I just think WE have to accept to pay the price for rentability to stay respectful.
 
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Jason Hernandez wrote:No, I'm not promoting a vegan view that keeping sheep for their wool is enslavement and therefore immoral. Probably only a few of us Permies hold to that. But I still remember one particular picture I saw on social media: a freshly shorn sheep with big, bloody gashes from the shears.



Do you mean the picture with Jona Weinhofen? It's a fake the lamb was made of foam.
 
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Sheering can do a lot of harm to a sheep if one isn't careful.  But so can cutting human hair.  Have you seen Sweeney Todd?!?!  I've had some very nasty wounds from having my hair cut.  

There are steps to take to make it safe for the sheep.  I cannot see anyone deliberately not taking these steps as harming a sheep means loss of money - one doesn't deliberately drive their car into a brick wall.  

Per sheep, accidents are less likely to happen in large scale farming because
1. everyone there is experienced at working in these conditions
2. the sheep are sorted by colour, size, sex, health, etc. before sheering
3. the Shepheard knows what steps to take to keep the sheep as safe as possible
4. a sloppy sheering risks damage to the animal, loss of value to the wool (skin in the wool dries as hard as steel and can destroy expensive processing equipment), and loss of reputation (there aren't many shearers out there, and the teams are hired and paid by reputation as much as anything)

Accidents do happen, but considering how many hundred sheep are shorn per day, it is low and usually caused by other issues.

A gash in the side of the sheep looks nasty, but they have three excellent things going on to make it better than it looks.  
1. being shorn kicks their metabolism into high gear so healing is fast
2. lanolin is antimicrobial and hardens into a crust after sheering to protect the sheep
3. they don't have as many nerve endings in their skin as we do (otherwise they wouldn't be able to tolerate the weight of the wool)

The big problem is with smaller farms the shearers may not be experienced or well trained. The farmer may not know how important it is to withhold food and water for 12 or more hours prior to sheering and they may not know how harmful it is to shear wet sheep.  Harm can come to the sheep out of ignorance and in my experience, is more likely to happen in a small, hobby flock, than in an industrial setting.

I also want to point out, there are some videos of industrial sheering injuries going around.  I met a person who was there and they told me that the person who did the damage to the sheep was paid quite a lot of money to do it for the video.  This is second-hand knowledge; I wasn't there.  But from my experience with shearers - they are generally gentle, kind people who enjoy working with animals.  


 
Jason Hernandez
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Skandi Rogers wrote:
Do you mean the picture with Jona Weinhofen? It's a fake the lamb was made of foam.



I'm not sure what you mean by "with." There was no human visible in the picture I saw.
 
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You also need to consider that in countries like Australia and New Zealand, the breeding that has gone into merino sheep breeds goes back almost 250 years, with the main stud animals worth tens of thousands of dollars per animal depending on genetics. So, no grazier is going to risk the welfare of their flock to a beginner or dodgy shearer. These are manicured beasts.

All the shearers I know of are contractors and get paid a price per animal shorn – the better the shearer, the more money they make NOTE: ‘better’ also means care of the animal – few if any nicks, no rough treatment, unbroken fleece, etc.

More often than not, the grazier and his tight-knit bunch of workers are in the shed anyway, doing other jobs. So the likelihood of blatant damage is very unlikely – word gets around quickly if a shearer is a dick.

Most of the photos on ‘social media’ are click-bait – the mix of humans, machinery and near wild animals is always a recipe for some damage.

What happens in other countries is anyone’s guess.

Also, in regards to mulesing or tail removal, I don’t care as long as it’s done humanely – have seen (and smelled) fly-stricken sheep – that is by FAR crueller than any preventative action.

What happens to livestock is small coin in the scheme of things but very emotive when put on film and it gets attention. But, in comparison, few videos become mainstream in worse practices: many feedlots, kitten & puppy farming, animal welfare and council pounds where animals are put-down on a daily basis simply because some human didn’t want them anymore; or, was simply too lazy to have their parents de-sexed (neutered), creating a volume that exceeds demand.

Is synthetic clothing any less ethical? Besides the micro-plastic issue, what about all the degradation done to turn crude oil into a poly-cotton shirt, then that shirt shedding micro-fibres every time it’s washed until it’s thrown into landfill? Out of sight, out of mind.

‘Ethics’ – speak to 100 people and you’ll probably get 100 different responses.
 
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To answer if sheep (or any) wool is ethical: yes, it is.

Sustainable, regenerative, biodegradable, fire resistant, heat resistant, cold resistant, and multi purpose.

Blooded fleece is basically ruined.

Shearing, like any other task - butchering, building a rocket mass heater, sharpening a knife - is not easy, requires knowledge, experience and practice.

I participated in person when "my" wool was shorn off a ram. I didn't do the shearing but I separated the good wool from the mulch wool early.
The ram was covered with kisses and talked to all the time. He got plenty of treats after, and I'm sure it wasn't a terrible day for him.
 
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