Baa, baa, black sheep, have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full!
One for the master,
And one for the dame,
One for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.
Able to recite this before I went to school, this was a significant part of my formal instruction about sheep. Affirming that they exist for our use and are willing and eager to hand over their fleeces, this little rhyme encompassed all the assumptions with which children are indoctrinated about other animal species, their reason for existing, and our assumed requirement and right to exploit them to death. Fast forward a number of years and on social media we frequently see the confident statement:
‘Taking wool doesn’t kill sheep. They have to be sheared so we may as well use the wool – they don’t need it.’
Some of us go through our entire lives without challenging the myths of our childhood . Oh, we dress them up in grown-up words and drape them in cherry picked notions, acquired assumptions, and pseudo science but at their heart they remain simply that. Myths that we somehow grew up knowing; never quite sure how we know them but confident that they must be correct because otherwise we’d surely know.
(In this essay I intend to focus on sheep, but it should be noted that the word ‘wool’ may also refer to the shaved body covering of members of a number of species including goats from whom cashmere and mohair is taken, angora from rabbits, and other types of wool from camelids such as alpaca and llamas.)
So. The myth about sheep and their wool. With a few embellishments depending on our upbringing, it goes something like this:
Sheep are a natural species and man has used them for as far back in time as we know. There are several different breeds. We eat them because they taste good/ because we need to eat animals / because they’d overrun the planet.
Sheep grow thick wooly coats and most of them can’t shed it without help. It makes them overheat so we shave it off for them. They have no use for it after it’s been shaved off so we use it ourselves so as not to waste it.
Was that the sort of idea you grew up with? Me too. Only it’s a million miles away from being that simple. There are holes in that myth that you could drive a bus through but let’s check out some of the facts. (I say ‘some of’ because as I’m editing this, I’m thinking of new points but it’s already well over the length I intended.)
Self interest is a powerful thing
The day I became vegan, little did I realise how that decision marked the first step on a journey of discovery that has led me down many dark and bleak paths. Some days it’s a struggle to close my eyes and ears to my knowledge of the whimpering, blood drenched hell that our wantonly brutal species has created. I am acutely aware of the bleeding, mutilated, broken young creatures who have never known a moment of peace or joy; aware of their pain, the anguish of their broken families, and the degradation that my species routinely inflicts, despite each person being convinced that they’re an ‘animal lover’. The grim reality of each new discovery makes me buckle with anguish, and so it was with this glimpse into the bleak subject of wool.
The most basic and uninformed of the justifications for using hens for eggs, runs along the lines that ‘hens lay eggs anyway, so it’s a waste not to use them’. Second only to egg use, come the justifications for using sheep for their wool. ‘It doesn’t kill them. They’d be unwell if they weren’t sheared so we may as well use the wool.’ And as with so many of our ‘justifications’, this one carries the sanctimonious suggestion of bucolic concern for wellbeing, with just a hint of victim consent, positioning our species as compassionate in divesting these unfortunates of the burden of ‘natural’ but inappropriately heavy coats. But let’s get this out of the way right at the start. Wool is an industry of ruthless exploitation. It’s an industry that uses innocent and unconsenting victims, making money from their bodies while disregarding their every interest. Their only escape is through a slaughterhouse.
The history of domestication and the start of selective breeding
Recently I have seen so many people deriding the very idea of selective breeding being used to create ‘designer victims’ for our species. All I can say is that it’s a huge element of our systematic exploitation and has been for a very long time and I last touched on the concept in an essay relating to hens. Much time and investment goes into maximising the use that can be made of all our victims while minimising the outlay needed to keep them alive until they are ‘spent’ or broken.
Sheep were first domesticated during the period 10,000 – 8,000 BC in Mesopotamia, an ancient region located in the eastern Mediterranean. Remains of domesticated sheep dating back to 5,000 BC have been found there, while the earliest woven wool garments have been dated back to about 4,000 BC.
So there’s the first thing. We frequently hear that ‘it’s always been this way’. It hasn’t.
- Human ancestors appeared on Earth between 7,000,000 and 5,000,000 (7-5 million) years ago;
- The earliest fossils of anatomically modern humans lived about 200,000 years ago;
- Using sheep began 12,000 years at the very most.
So domestication of sheep, like every other species we have forced into servitude, happened in the extremely recent past in evolutionary terms. Basically it’s a new idea.
The ancestor of modern sheep – the mouflon
Wild sheep looked different from their modern descendants: they had a shorter, coarser fleece and the wool colours were often pigmented. These sheep could not be shorn; instead the wool was plucked by hand.
It is believed that the selective breeding for wooly sheep began around 6,000 BC while efforts to obtain white-fleeced sheep began in Mesopotamia around 3,000 BC. By 600 BC, sheep with characteristics similar to the modern breeds were widespread throughout Western Asia. Selective breeding started very early in the history of our use and continues to this day as we select for the characteristics from which most profit may be made.
Selective breeding for a global industry
From 476-1453 AD, wool trading flourished in Europe. A fine-wool breed that later became known as ‘merino’ was introduced in the 12th century.
The breed specifics a jealously guarded secret, at one time selling these sheep outside the Spanish empire was a crime punishable by death. However as the empire began to decline, some of these highly prized creatures were gifted to a number of european provinces. Sheep were taken to America in 1492. The Dutch acclimated their gifted Spanish sheep to their South African colonies and from there, several Cape Fat Tail sheep were sold in 1788 to voyagers on their way to Australia.
By 1800, sheep whose bodies grew fine Spanish wool or the coarser British wool had spread across the globe. In response to the burgeoning trade that resulted, Australian wool pioneer John Macarthur successfully lobbied England as early as 1803 to promote and encourage selective breeding in Australia. Today, with a flock estimated at some 70 million individuals, Australia remains the number one wool producer in the world, supplying approximately 25% of the global market. This is followed by China at 18%, USA at 17%, and New Zealand at 11%.
Selection for economically important traits like wool type has resulted in more than 200 distinct breeds of sheep. Some breeds only have hair, some wool and some both. Many – if not most – breeds are multi-functional from a profitable perspective. This means that after an existence being exploited for their wool, their reproductive potential and their breast milk, they are ultimately slaughtered for their dead flesh.
Thus it is another pure fantasy to imagine that sheep ‘aren’t killed’ for their wool. All sheep are brought into the world to be used to death by whatever means, with the aim of generating as much profit for as little outlay as possible.
Of course meddling with nature – which is essentially what selective breeding does – can throw all sorts of metaphorical spanners into the works. An example of this is seen in the case of cat and dog breeds selectively chosen to have the ‘flat’ (brachycephalic) faces that are deemed by some to be aesthetically pleasing. Many of these individuals are now known to be suffering from a range of health problems, leading to lifelong suffering as a direct result of being ‘designed’ for humans. Breathing problems, eye inflammation, skin infections and difficulty eating are just some of the issues that are being deliberately risked and inflicted, and all for the sake of appearance and the consequent high sums of money that can be made from breeding and selling them.
While certain characteristics can be selectively bred at the gene level, there are consequences affecting many of them, consequences that an unscrupulous species such as our own does not hesitate to tackle with a ‘hands-on’ approach – surgical mutilation without anaesthesia. Of course this is invariably presented with the same bucolic sheen as shearing, while being given official-sounding names and being ‘justified’ as a practical measure.
Now some individuals and groups will go on to claim that performing procedures without anaesthesia does not cause sheep pain, since they don’t cry out in agony. However, the sheep is a species that is naturally preyed upon. Like chickens and many other ‘prey’ species, their behaviour has evolved to evade detection and capture by predators. When sheep feel pain, or are aware of life-threatening danger, they won’t cry out but rather they remain silent so as not to attract further predators.
So, what sort of ‘procedures’ are we talking about?
- Castration: to prevent breeding, aid fattening and reduce aggression, lambs are usually castrated by applying a tight ring, or else by the use of one of a number of devices resembling medieval torture instruments. Check the link if you’ve a strong stomach. This is done without anaesthetic.
- Docking ‘prevents fecal matter from accumulating on the tail and hindquarters of the animal’. Here in the UK all the official ‘welfare’ regulations state that this is to be avoided if at all possible. However as a rural resident for several decades I know for a fact that it is common practice. The fields at this time of year are littered with fallen tails and the adults almost all have docked tails.
- A particularly stomach-churning practice, mulesing was developed in 1972 and is considered by many to be a routine husbandry procedure, presented as a practical measure to reduce the risk of flystrike. It is most commonly used with Merino sheep, whose woolly wrinkles and folds in the skin around their tails make them especially susceptible to flystrike. Although banned in many countries including, most recently, New Zealand, it is still widely practiced, a consequence of human selective breeding for excessively wrinkled skin in order to grow more wool and make more profit. Mulesing is the cutting away of strips of wool-bearing skin from around the buttocks to leave a gaping wound, and since the scar tissue that grows over the wound does not grow wool, it is less likely to attract flies. Mulesing is not to be confused with crutching (or crotching) which is the removal of wool from around the tail and between the rear legs of a sheep for hygiene purposes. I have not linked an image in keeping with my commitment not to share images that encourage viewers to think there are right ways to commit fundamental atrocities, however if you find it difficult to envisage a sheep who has had this procedure done, I invite you to search ‘mulesing’ on Google and scan through the images. You’ll get my drift.
- Ear tagging, notching, and other asset/resource cataloguing Because in the eyes of the law, nonhuman individuals are deemed to be the property of humans, their right to live, even their right to own themselves and their own bodies is not acknowledged. In essence they have no recognised rights whatsoever. As the property of humans they are nothing more than business assets, commodities and resources, brought into the world to make as much profit as possible for humans. As any business must keep track of its assets they are tagged /ear notched /branded /tattooed and/or chipped depending on their species.
And let’s not forget the shearing procedure itself. Having witnessed this at first hand many times, it is not a gentle process even when observing every guideline in the book. Sheep are recognised to be easily frightened, stressed or injured and are rightly wary of humans. For them all, it is extremely traumatic to be tipped onto their backs and held down, subjected to the noise and chatter of hard-handed strangers making themselves heard over the buzz of electric clippers or the clack of hand-held clippers. Many sheep struggle in panic with horrific consequences and I have witnessed many cut and bleeding creatures flee back to their comrades in wide-eyed and abject terror once released. To minimise risk to humans, it is not uncommon in some places for sheep to be deprived of food and water in the period leading up to their ordeal, in order to weaken their ability to resist.
If you find this difficult to imagine, and you are someone who shares their home with a dog or a cat, you will surely know the panic that would ensue if one of our beloved nonhuman family members were to be thrust into a similar situation. It pains us to even consider the fear they would experience.
So here we are. The wool industry. A far-from-natural, lucrative sideline to the final atrocity of the slaughterhouse; an elaborately manufactured system of exploitation where defenceless individuals have been selectively bred for characteristics that make money for humans, while being forced to submit to brutal and intrusive interference in every aspect of their lives; a catalogue of horrors worthy of Frankenstein.
The fruit of the poisonous tree
Often, at this stage, a reader may shrug. ‘This situation is what it is,’ the shrug says. ‘We just have to live with it.’ ‘They have to be sheared for their own good.’ This is missing a huge point. As a species, we created this situation. The circumstance that led to the current state of affairs is entirely artificial and is of our own making.
Some time ago I was fascinated by an article published by the advocacy and education site Free From Harm, by the renowned animal rights lawyer, Sherry F. Colb who is Professor of Law and Charles Evans Hughes Scholar at Cornell University Law School, where she teaches courses in animal rights, evidence, and criminal procedure. The article was entitled ‘The milk of the poisonous tree‘ and examined the applicability of the legal concept ‘The fruit of the poisonous tree’ to our use of bovine breast milk which we know by the misleadingly innocuous name, ‘dairy‘.
Professor Colb explains ‘the fruit of the poisonous tree’ to signify that if someone has committed a wrong in acquiring some product, it is as wrongful to utilise and enjoy the ‘benefits’ of that product as it was wrongful to commit the harm that resulted in the product’s acquisition in the first place. In other words, one becomes an accomplice in the initial wrongdoing by taking the fruits of that wrongdoing and making use of them.
Even for those who refuse to acknowledge that the absence of necessity for our actions, along with the scientifically proven sentience of our victims, means that we are honour bound not to harm them, I have always felt that the ‘laying eggs anyway’, ‘the wool needs sheared anyway’, and even ‘the animals are dead anyway so we may as well eat them’ excuses all fall into that category.
Applying the concept of ‘the fruit of the poisonous tree’, by taking and using the results of the breathtaking wrongs committed against our sheep victims, we become complicit in the initial crime; an accessory to the needless slaughter of 567,720,576 individuals in 2017 alone. However we view it, the idea that wool is a victimless ‘resource’ just could not be more wrong.
‘So what are we supposed to do? Just let them suffer?’
This knee-jerk retort is so often delivered smugly – intended as a ‘gotcha’ – by all who want to continue to use other individuals and even by some who don’t. So once again, please consider all those cats and dogs with their flat faces, the consequent ill health and suffering that is the result. Let’s think, too of those others of the species with whom we share our homes who have inherited disorders at the genetic level as is common in ‘pedigree’ breeds. What happens to them? Do we just shug? Do we ‘just let them suffer’?
Not at all. We stop allowing them to reproduce, stop perpetuating the defect down further generations, and we have no doubt whatsoever that to allow the genetic disorder to blight the lives of more innocents is deeply unethical. Consider the parallel between this and the disorders with which we have deliberately afflicted our victims to make money. As consumer demand diminishes, the decent thing to do is to stop compelling our victims to reproduce.
So, like a cracked record, I repeatedly say that the world won’t go vegan overnight. A common assertion is that many breeds will become extinct in a vegan world and this is said as if that were a bad thing. Make no mistake, the almost inevitable extinction of the pitiable, Frankensteinian creations of our unspeakably self-obsessed species is a totally different issue from the extinction of those wild creatures who were quietly minding their own business in the aeons before we came along, and whose habitat we are continuing to lay waste as our planet enters its death throes and we remorselessly drive the Sixth Mass Extinction.
So when we talk of extinction for the grotesquely mutated victims of our deluded species, how can this possibly be a bad thing – if indeed we survive as a species to change our ways? In a way, such extinction, allowing these defenceless innocents to escape the obscene torment of bodies we have created to serve our interests at the expense of their own, would be the only really humane thing we have ever done for them.