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May 01, 2011


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Deborah Robson

For those who don't want to check the Wikipedia article (chosen, as I mentioned, because of the lack of imagery) but still want a quick definition, mulesing is a surgical procedure that removes two strips of wool and related sections of skin from the rear of the sheep, where flystrike most often occurs. Mulesing must be carefully performed by specially trained and certified people. Healing takes about two weeks.

There are other ways to have healthy, productive animals. As I noted, those other ways aren't easy or fast, but humans can come up with better solutions than mulesing. It's like an emergency solution to a severe problem that has gone on to become habit.


For anyone who's had to treat a case--even a mild one--of flystrike, it may be that mulesing is the milder of the alternatives. Have had friends lose animals from flystrike, and it can lead to many complications for the animal. I feel for the sheep--they really weren't meant to have that many "wrinkles". Same with Shar Pei dogs--many of their skin problems have come from the "more wrinkles" demand. Reality needs to set in in both cases...


Wonderful article. I often wonder what militant-vegetarians/vegans think when they try to convince people to give up all meat and/or animal byproducts. There are MILLIONS of sheep, goats, cows, pigs, chickens, etc out there that would be immediately out of work and if we humans weren't getting anything useful out of them, we'd stop feeding them/caring for them and they would die. No rancher is going to keep caring for thousands of cows he suddenly can't sell or use, right?

To me, encouraging the products that do NOT require the animal to die is a GOOD thing. Eat the chicken eggs. Wear the wool. Drink the cow's milk. Give purpose to the animals' lives so that they get to keep living. People who object to the use of wool need to think these things through.

(All this said as a person who does eat meat but is all for finding OTHER uses for the animals on this planet who rely on us for their well-being.)

Deborah Robson

Kris, thanks for your perspective. By the way, folks, Kris has lived with a variety of animals all her life (and all over the U.S.) and is finishing up a *rigorous* veterinary technician training program.

--Deb: Well said. There are costs for being alive. One of those costs for humans is needing to eat to stay alive (I have more to say on that, but won't right now). One of the costs of being alive for sheep is being shorn. With some of the other animals, the trade-offs are more complicated. In this particular case, it's win/win.

We do need to be more humane and conscious about our ways of treating animals, and about where, exactly, the things we are using come from. It's not just quantity of life but quality of life that needs to be part of our spectrum of decisions.


Yes, of course, the egg- and milk-producing animals deserve to be well-cared for, breathe fresh air, have healthy lives ... we owe it to them to take proper care of them (and not everybody does). I just often wonder what the vegans think would happen to all those animals if everyone on the planet all of a sudden eschewed all animal-byproducts. Talk about genocide...


I eat meat, but I do see the point of the vegans with regard to Australian merinos, which I feel are overbred. I tend to shy away from using ultrafine, merino-based wools; I ease my inner vegan by not demanding the very finest wool and using rooed or shed wool where possible.


Great post - as always!!

I love merino wool - and had fleeces upon fleeces from a local grower. I even got to help at her shearing a couple years - very educational.

I waver on eating meat (this from someone who raised Texas Longhorns!) but sometimes my body simply craves it.

(Oh, and I loved the links on ravelry to your DVD and book - terrific!!)

Deborah Robson

Thanks, Cathy. . . . I was raised with dairy Holsteins (the old-style cows, not the modern genetically pumped-up version). I do lots better without meat, yet I savor good yogurt and cheese. (Note the "good" {grin}. It's got to be real.)

Deborah Robson

Sergeantmajorette, the Australian Merinos are worth a whole study in themselves (actually, the stories of Merinos overall--throughout the world--are fascinating).

Australian sheep raisers have done an amazing job of fitting particular strains of Merinos to specific landscapes and environmental conditions. What they are doing in producing such quantities and qualities of wool is absolutely extraordinary.

That's part of what gives me faith that they can come up with a more advanced and subtle way to control flystrike, through a combination of breeding and husbandry.


Thanks very much for an informative and nuanced discussion of this complicated topic! I love being able to make a somewhat informed decision on how to spend my hobby resources ($$ and time.)
Keeping in mind that, for me, knitting and spinning are my hobbies, not my livelihood. Each dollar I spend is like a vote in the economy of fibers. The more I learn, the more I like to spend on non-Merino breeds. For me it's a combination of avoiding a monoculture of merino by supporting other breeds and also looking for wool that is suited to its likely end use. And I don't like the idea of mulesing or of flystrike, so I am fortunate to be able to pull myself out of that equation.

For environmental reasons, I avoid fibers made from things that didn't start as fibers, like rayon and polyester. And I try to avoid flying for this hobby, since I already travel enough for my day job. Getting on a plane is a huge source of carbon emissions that I expect is as bad for the sheep as it is for me. That said, I will happily drive 45 minutes to be at MSW next weekend; hope to meet you there!


Brava! That is a most impressive rebuttal to such a wrong-headed notion, Deb! Much better than the open-mouthed jaw-drop I pulled when confronted with this statement as I was demonstrating spinning at a public event. I think I mumbled something about "Are *you* hurt and traumatized when you get a haircut?" and bit my tongue on pointing out that only a complete idiot would buy the idea that shearing is cruel to the sheep rather than necessary for their comfort and health. Obviously they needed educating on proper animal husbandry practices. Thank you so much for your carefully reasoned arguments and I will direct folks to this post in future. Some wonderful comments to go with it too.

Deborah Robson

Jaw-drop, indeed, Louisa. My daughter pointed out to me last night that some people think that sheep are killed to harvest the wool. That's so far off the radar that I simply can't fathom anyone forming the thought.

Uh, no. Wool is a renewable resource. The sheep grows another warm coat for next winter, which it doesn't need come spring. . . . And the same the year after. . . .


" Know your shepherd" - that sums it up for me. As with food production, getting the product directly from the producer is fairer to everyone.


Yes, all good points except for the farm animal equation dilemma - extra males.

In order to keep healthy flocks, almost all males born a given year must die be they roosters or rams.

Deborah Robson

True, et. In sheep, some flocks keep on the males as wethers. But that's not standard operating procedure.


Thank you so much for this great rebuttal, Deb. I was dumbstruck when confronted by that vegan. Simply did not have enough information right at had to correct her but I knew she was dead wrong. In future I will point people to this post.

Know your shepherd: I'm proud to be a member of the Juniper Moon Farm. Susan Gibbs, the shepherd, raises cormo sheep and angora goats. I've watched them being shorn and they are exactly as relaxed as you described which always amazes me.

I am totally with you on the tail docking and ear cropping thing! Looking forward to seeing you this weekend!


Dina - how will you respond to the fact that at least half of the lambs (ram lambs) are killed for meat and never even grow old enough to shear?

There is no way to raise wool without taking this into consideration.

Deborah Robson

et, there are a few vegetarian shepherds who emphasize the wool and keep the wethers. That isn't the industrial standard, of course. It's not a method that will work for quantities of animals when the economy values the meat more than the wool.

I do think we need far fewer resources of all sorts than we think we need, assuming that we make things that are durable and take pleasure in well-designed, well-crafted items. That requires a whole restructuring of the value system that drives the economy. One step at a time.

Deb Robson

Dina, the CSA model for fiber is one that interests me a great deal, and Susan Gibbs is creative and smart in the way shes managing Juniper Moon Farm.


I love the CSA model. I have participated in CSAs with two different shepherds. I have been happy to support their efforts and have been delighted with the wool that I have received in return.

Totally with you on docking tails and forcing ears on dogs into unnatural positions. Neither does the dog any good. It's all for human vanity.


I've been following this conversation with interested. We do eat meat. Not a lot but we do eat and enjoy it. However, I do my best to make sure that my meat and eggs were ethically produced from well cared for and naturally reared animals. Luckily this is easy for me because we have a vibrant local farmers market and excellent local farm shops. I have, however, a much harder ethical problem with milk and milk products and I say this as a person who simply adores cheese - all cheese. Dairy cattle have a much, much harder and less natural life than beef cattle and many aspects of that life are downright unpleasant to think about. So I find myself eating meat with a clear conscience but putting milk in my tea or coffee with added guilt.

Deborah Robson

You're right about the general situation of dairy cattle, Alison. When I say I grew up with dairy cattle in the family, I always specify that they were *old-style* Holsteins (skipping another long discussion here). And they had good lives: I loved being with them. In most places, the situation now is different.

We are fortunate where I live that we are able to know where our milk, yogurt, and cheese come from (and how the animals live)--as long as we buy locally.


Sadly, it's very difficult, if not nigh impossible, here to be able to buy milk and many milk products direct from the source. The dairy industry is highly mechanised and centralised not to mention hedged about with health and safety regulations. A few years ago there was even an attempt to close down an award winning Scottish cheese maker because his cheeses were created traditionally, ie with unpasteurised milk. Truely food is an ethical minefield, even some things we think of as safely vegetarian. I suppose the best we can do is to do the best we can.


Sorry I didn't get to say hello at MS&W - about the only time I wasn't there, it seems, was during your book signing!
I bought a lovely silver border leicester fleece there, with blond tips - very clean. I was planning on combing it. Guess I'll wait for the book to arrive and read what you say about border leicester! I was tempted by a silver cotswold but it was huge (9 pounds) and the tips were very clotted together.

Deb Robson

Caroline, Maryland was a BLUR for me. A wonderful one, but way too much going on. The books sold out within the first hour and a quarter of the signing.

Congratulations on your Border Leicester! There were some lovely ones there. Combing is a great idea.

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