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Counting sheep

Wooly sheep

Credit: iStockphoto

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Organic farming

Certified organic sheep farms in Australia must not use chemical treatments for drenching, dipping, jetting or
growth promotants on their stock. The sheep are often hand fed year-round to ensure healthy immune systems, which can help prevent internal and external parasites. Organic sheep can be treated with herbal or sometimes homeopathic treatments.Farmers cannot spray grazing pastures with herbicides or insecticides, and genetic engineering or modification is strictly prohibited. Stocking rates are kept lower than on conventional farms, encouraging cleaner pastures, increased sheep nutrition and better soil health.

Farmers must agree to certain animal welfare standards, and therefore the use of antibiotics and vaccines is restricted to use only under consultation of a vet. Mulesing is restricted on organic farms in Australia; only accepted as a veterinary treatment in cases where the welfare of the animal is a concern and when pain relief is provided. First and foremost, the selection of breeds appropriate to the region should be considered, for example, bare-breeched sheep. Organic farmers are aware that wool which is well nourished has a higher grease content and is less likely to retain moisture – therefore it’s less likely to attract flies.

Certified organic wool can only be cleaned and scoured with approved low impact, biodegradable detergents. Any antistatic products added to the cleaned wool must come from natural animal or plant oils. Paraffin oils might be used, but they must be fully biodegradable and water soluble. Just like non-organic wool, organic wool will still be cleaned with very hot water, adding to its high energy impact.

Greening sheep

Stuart Adams is a fourth generation Australian sheep farmer who co-founded Continuum Textiles, a sales agency for socially and environmentally responsible materials. He tried to bring sustainable farming methods to Australia as the managing director of i-Merino in the early 2000s.

“The problem was there were no incentives for farmers to farm sustainably in Australia at that time, and there’s wasn’t much interest in sustainable wool production by the Australian industry,” says Adams, who is currently focusing his efforts on promoting the organic cotton industry.

“The truth is that New Zealand wool has done much better than Australia at marketing themselves as an ethical and sustainable product,” says Adams.

In November 2009, the AWI launched the Wool Carbon Alliance, a group of Australian and international wool industry representatives joined to market the natural benefits of wool as an ideal fibre to reduce global warming. According to the Wool Carbon Alliance, wool is up to 50 per cent carbon, with each kilogram of greasy wool storing around 1.3 kilograms of CO2. These figures don’t take into account the emissions created by farming sheep and land degradation.

“I know many growers that are trying to operate in a sustainable manner,” confirms Adams. “The biggest problem for the industry is facilitating the flow of certified wool through the production chain. This is a very cost intensive exercise and only few people have the expertise to manage it and also fund it.”

Tim Marshall from TM Organics, consultants and business advisors for the organic industry in Australia, guesses that the total amount organic wool producers in Australia “wouldn’t even be one per cent… it would be absolutely tiny”.

“A lot of people with sheep have never bothered to get the wool certified because they didn’t think that the market was big enough,” says Marshall.

“There were some people in Australia two or three years ago from large European manufacturers and retailers – like Marks and Spencer – who were looking for organic wool, and they were expecting to get that wool without paying a premium.

And basically, they went home without having developed that market because they didn’t offer a premium.”
“If the market wanted to expand fairly quickly, it could do so, because there are producers out there who currently have organic sheep but do not utilise the wool for the organic market.

“But I can tell you that there’d be a couple of very big producers, at the moment, that are on their way into or at least contemplating organic certification. At least one of those would have 500,000 sheep, so potentially, there’s a big change,” says Marshall.

With such limited development in Australia to date in sustainable organic and ethical wool farming, the greenest wool is the wool you already own, along with second-hand and reused wool. If buying new, look for those companies who use sustainable and mulesing-free practices.

To encourage farmers to grow socially and environmentally responsible products choose products wisely. For more information on un-mulsed wool, check out the PETA website: www.peta.org. For more info on organic wool, visit www.australianorganicwool.net.au.

What about alpaca?

It’s warmer, softer, stronger, finer and more lustrous than sheep’s wool, and it has a lighter eco-footprint. Alpacas don’t cause soil erosion because they have a soft foot pad unlike sheep which are hard-hoofed. Sheep are grazers and will eat grass until very short, whereas alpacas are browsers and will pick throughout a paddock. However, alpacas do need to be hand fed roughage throughout the year, whereas sheep will still do well without this. Being larger, alpacas produce more wool per animal, but sheep can be shorn more often, around twice a year. While some say alpacas can only be shorn every two years, it is possible to shear them once a year, yielding the same yearly amount, or more, of overall weight in wool as sheep. An important consideration in terms of animal welfare is that alpacas don’t need mulesing. Alpaca wool can be a little harder to dye and weave than sheep’s wool, but there is no waste wool (known as ‘kemp’) as there is with other fleece animals.

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The author of this article grew up on a small merino sheep farm in NSW.

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