Counting sheep

G Magazine

A natural material that has helped keep us warm through many winters, wool has become an Aussie cold weather essential. But is the very fibre itself being pulled over our eyes when it comes to the high ethical & enviro impact of this popular thread?

Wooly sheep

Credit: iStockphoto

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The frosty months of winter sees us reach into the closet for woolly wonders in the forms of jumpers, socks, blankets, scarves and beanies. It makes sense to rug up in warm clothes as the temperature drops, especially when for every one degree you turn up the heater, your household energy use increases by 15 per cent. Wool has a long-held reputation as a natural, lightweight, breathable, stylish and warm fabric; but when it comes to animal cruelty and the environment, how do its eco-credentials stack up?

Being naturally crimped, little gaps between wool fibres trap air, making it the perfect insulator. Wool holds colour dyes well, resists dirt and wrinkles, has low allergens, anti-microbial properties, doesn’t hold static electricity and has a low fire danger compared to other common textiles. With so many benefits, it’s little wonder wool receives the accolades it does.

Today, Australian wool is a $2.3 billion industry that employs thousands of people in regional and rural areas, providing a quarter of the world’s wool and 85 per cent of the world’s fine apparel wool.

But despite such large yields, Australia is lagging behind the rest of the world as retailers and consumers demand more ethical and environmental products.

A curly topic

Merino sheep have long been prized for their super fine wool; it’s thought they’ve been domesticated for 12,000 years. Originally from a cool-climate in the hills of Turkey, modern merino’s are bred to have folds in the skin so there’s more wool per animal, but this means dirt and feces get caught in their oily wool – and in a hot climate like Australia this dirty wool is perfect for flies to lay their eggs in, leading to fly strike – commonly dealt with by mulesing.

“Mulesing is basically the chopping off with shear-like instruments the butts of sheep – the idea is to scar the area to prevent maggot infestation,” says Jason Baker, campaigns director for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Australia.

“It’s extremely painful and traumatic to the lambs,” says Baker. “An alternative to mulesing is breeding bare-breeched sheep; which means they have a bare butt and don’t get fly strike… intensively, this can be breed into a flock in just two years.”

“There are already, according to the wool industry, 20 per cent of farmers who don’t mules.”

“But the Australian wool industry isn’t talking about alternatives; instead they’ve spent 10 million dollars over the last eight years fighting PETA… meanwhile the New Zealand wool industry has skyrocketed in demand because people now want mulsed-free wool and they can guarantee it.”

“I think as a whole mulesing isn’t the only issue people are thinking about. It’s the entire industry across the board on farming and ethical practices behind it,” says Baker.

Funded by woolgrowers and the government, the Australian Wool Industry (AWI) is currently responsible for the marketing and research and development for the industry. They have suggested their long-term aim is to remove the need for mulesing, however significant progress is still yet to be seen in this area.

Wooly wash

In addition to fly strike, merinos are also likely to get pests such as lice and mites in warm climates. To combat this efficiently, farmers apply chemicals to the wool of sheep via sheep dipping or sheep jetting. Some of the chemicals in these sprays are so strong that they can last for up to six months.

In 2009, the federal government’s Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) had to ban the use of a particular chemical, diazinon, for dipping and jetting because of safety concerns. “Workers who were exposed to moderate to high levels of diazinon became ill,” says Simon Cubit, spokesperson for APVMA.

Cubit says that the chemicals used today are better and “should not present undue risk to human health, the environment, the sheep themselves and trade”.

However, consumers are becoming more aware of the long-term environmental effects of chemical insecticides. In 2005, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) of North America noted an increasing demand for organic wool.

Wool in Australia can be only certified organic if the sheep are not treated with any artificial products – including dips, jetting, drenches or antibiotics. ‘Organic’ sheep are stocked at a lower number than conventional farms, encouraging cleaner pastures, increased sheep nutrition and better soil health on the farm.

The OTA is one of many organisations that recognises organic farming methods can help to remedy land-use problems – an important consideration for Australia when 41 per cent of our woolgrowers have indicated being affected by dryland salinity caused by clearing vegetation from land and grazing hard-hoofed animals such as sheep.

Furthermore, the greasy raw wool requires hot water and chemicals to clean off the wool wax, dirt and pesticide residues. The water and energy intensive process called scouring is also highly polluting. A typical Australian wool-scouring plant is equivalent to the sewerage from a town of around 50,000 people.

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.

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