Yesterday I received a comment from a friend that contained several questions, and I wrote a comment in response that really needs to be a blog post, even though it's not something I'd ordinarily write about. There will be no pictures, either, for which we are all grateful. Not even links to pictures of some of the topics (but I found some great links for others).
The short answer: NO, using wool is not cruel. It involves a symbiotic relationship between two species. Sheep either shed their wool and it can then be gathered for human use, or they are shorn for health reasons and the wool then becomes something the sheep doesn't need any more and humans are free to use.
With the breeds that shed, which are relatively uncommon these days, the symbiosis is an example of commensalism, in which one side of the exchange (humans) benefits and the other (sheep) is neither harmed nor aided. With shearing the relationship is one of mutualism, where both sides benefit. Either way, the sheep are not harmed by the use of their wool.
Yet there are reasons why this discussion of cruelty takes place.
Here's the comment with its questions:
Hi Deb, A well-meaning but misguided vegan acquaintance told me it was cruel to knit with wool and that man was mistreating sheep for their wool. I think she based that outrageous statement on what she heard about Australian merinos. Can you discuss a bit about the need for man to shear sheep (are there sheep that don't need shearing? and why the majority do need shearing?) and can you educate me on the whole merino controversy thing? If the above questions are not to your liking/not your area of interest, I'll understand.
Here's the response I wrote, with a couple of additions:
Hi, Dina. Ah, yes. As a vegetarian advocating for sheep, I take some heat from both sides. The current economy requires that flocks be managed for their meat sales; I've been accused of being disloyal to the entire enterprise of raising sheep because I don't eat meat. On the other side, well-meaning vegetarians and vegans who haven't been around sheep—or who have seen some of the information on a particular practice with Australian Merinos—react hard in the "cruelty" direction, as your friend has done.
I've studied the issues involved. I am comfortable with my own life choice in being a vegetarian. I've been one for a very long time. While recognizing the realities of the contemporary market, part of my work—in alignment with my personal philosophy—has the intention of increasing the economic value of wool as a way of supporting the shepherds in their work, so that fiber becomes a bigger part of the overall picture and a more substantial reason for maintaining healthy, contented flocks of these amazing animals in all their astonishing diversity.
And as I have studied sheep and other fiber animals I have had to look at the accusations of cruelty in order to get a comprehensive picture of why this controversy exists and what my thoughts about it are.
On the Australian Merino controversy
The practice your friend has heard about is called mulesing, and don't put that term into your search engine unless you want to be grossed out. (I've linked to a Wikipedia article that gives a good overview with no illustrative material.) It's appalling, and some of the photos are worse. I don't like to think about it, much less talk about it. THAT SAID, I have done my research, because I needed to know. (1) The practice prevents flystrike, which can be gruesomely painful and fatal to the animals (worse than the mulesing, which is why it's done—and there are also photos on the web of flystrike resulting in death) and (2) the practice is being eliminated, although it has not been completely phased out because alternatives to prevent flystrike need to be in place or the elimination of the practice will result in more suffering for the animals.
Australia has massive flocks of Merino sheep. Management techniques for livestock on that scale are very different than the management techniques used for smaller flocks, or even of huge flocks of breeds other than Merinos, who are noted for growing large quantities of exceptionally fine wools. Merinos have also been bred to have skin that occurs in loose folds (producing more surface area for the growing of more wool), which increases their susceptibility to flystrike. Climate is a factor, as are seasonal variations; flystrike is worse when it has been especially rainy. In areas where flystrike occurs and the resident animals are susceptible to it, it needs to be prevented.
Mulesing as a practice for controlling flystrike is something I'd love to see disappear completely . . . yesterday, or sooner. There's an interesting article on the topic—one of the authors is Bernie Rollin, a well-known animal ethicist whose work I respect enormously—in one of the scholarly journals. Getting a copy of the entire article requires $$ or access through an academic library, but the abstract gives the gist.
Management in flocks that are less than massive can provide more individualized attention to the sheep (including Merinos). That means that husbandry practices can also be individualized. The sheep I frequently write about that are on the RBST and ALBC lists are in small flocks. There aren't enough of them to make really big flocks (which is okay: they don't fit environments that can handle large flocks).
In fact, the Australian Merino situation does not reflect general sheep husbandry practices in other breeds and other parts of the world, for many reasons. It has changed some already, and it does need to change more.
There are sheep that don't need shearing. They fall into two basic groups: hair sheep (they may have wool as well as hair, but not much and it sheds) and the so-called primitive breeds that shed seasonally.
As humans have kept sheep over the millennia, they have bred to maximize the soft wool and minimize the hair and kemp components of the three-part original fleece. (The Merino has no hair or kemp at all.) Hair is a useful item, although not for soft clothing, and kemp produces a tweedy texture. However, for processing it's easiest just to have wool and not to have to separate out, or deal with, the three types of fiber. Breeding that emphasizes wool was a convenience for hand processing and a necessity for mechanical processing on a large scale.
Along with the increase in wool percentages in a breed's fleeces, and the drop in hair and kemp components, came a loss of the natural tendency to shed. (Genetics is complicated: when you get one quality you want, you may lose another that's useful.) This led to the need to shear. It can also be more convenient to shear: all the wool at one time, from all the sheep, in one location. Beats pulling it off bushes. In addition, although some sheep—even some Merinos—can go without shearing for quite a while (do check out the story of Shrek the sheep in a search engine), leaving the wool in place for too long can result in skin problems and other health difficulties.
A good shearer will remove the fleece in one lovely piece without causing any distress or injury to the animal. There's a lot of skill involved. In fact, after a proficient shearing the sheep will bounce back onto its feet and dart away, looking like it's just taken a weight off. (It should have been immobilized by the shearer in a comfortable position: a lack of struggling and a benign look on the sheep's face indicate that the position is right.) The shearing process, done well, looks almost like a dance: yes, there's a lot of muscle in it—dance requires muscle, too. We need more good shearers. And lots more dancing.
Although I haven't shorn sheep myself (I have clipped a goat), I've watched shearers on many occasions, in several cultures, and have also attended a shearing school and watched people learning to do this work. I read Godfrey Bowen's Wool Away: The Art and Technique of Shearing shortly after it was published in 1974. I recommend it strongly for an understanding of the process. Another fine resource, with great photos, is Kevin Ford's Shearing Day.
Human breeding has produced the need to shear sheep. There need be no harm caused—it's just like getting a haircut. (Note that small children who aren't used to having their hair washed or cut may object loudly, to the point where it appears they're being abused, yet leaving their hair unwashed and unpruned could be considered neglect.)
I don't mind a few second cuts in a fleece. They indicate the shearer's intention to err on the side of slightly damaging the wool rather than nicking the animal's skin. When I get ready to wash wool that has been freshly shorn, I can easily brush these bits off, so they disappear before they ever have a chance to get in the way of yarn preparation. (Lots of second cuts, of course, reflect a lack of proficiency in shearing.)
There are great opportunities to watch shearing demonstrations at fiber festivals. I most enjoy watching blade-shearing: the level of skill involved is amazing, and it's beautifully efficient. Blade-shearing involves the use of shears, like great big scissors, rather than mechanical clippers.
Blade-shearing leaves more wool on the sheep than mechanical shearing—not as close a haircut, and (except possibly for the shearers' choice of music) it's a lot quieter. There's a great video here.
If you watch the video, pay attention to the way the shearer handles the sheep, and to the animal's complete lack of distress throughout the shearing and in the way she leaves the shearing area. The shears are—and must be!—extremely sharp (at the end of the video, the shearer touches up the blades before beginning on the next sheep). Every movement is precisely orchestrated and timed so that the shearing happens as quickly as possible and without harming the animal (or the shearer). The entire clipping takes less than three minutes. Note the way the shearer changes his own and the sheep's positions; the sheep needs to be relaxed so it will not make any sudden movements and be cut as the wool is removed. Watch especially the way the shearer moves the ears out of the way, and how he coordinates his actions when he removes the wool from the legs.
There's more information on shearing here.
At the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, there have for years been a few blade-shearing demos outside the main building. This year, as apparently happened last year as well (I wasn't there), the festival will be hosting the only blade-shearing competition in the United States. It's happening on the stage between 10 and 1 on Sunday, May 8, 2011. (I'll be doing the book signing from 10 to 2, except when I plan to sneak out and watch the Parade of Breeds at 12:30. Maybe I'll get a peek in at the end of the shearing while I'm walking around.)
Your friend is well intended. This is a case where an opinion about a complex topic gets formed without going deeply enough into understanding the issues and forces involved. Your friend's impulse is right: the practice is wrong. Yet the solution to this wrongness needs to be as sophisticated as the situation that it addresses, and needs to be appropriately applied, not forced into place in areas where the problem doesn't exist. Like putting out a general call against the use of all wool.
What's a good path through this thicket?
* Know your shepherd!
* Get acquainted with the sheep who are growing your wool!
You can do this in person or by letter or internet.
On another topic
I look forward to the time when people quit docking dogs' tails and cropping their ears for reasons not directly related to the individual animal's health or safety.