two lambs

SHEEP AND LAMBS

Sheep are raised in the UK to produce meat (lamb and mutton) as well as for their wool and milk. Despite what industry representatives suggest, it is not only cruel business but an environmentally unsustainable one. For example, sheep farming takes up four million hectares--or a full sixth of the UK's 24 million hectares--but provides just 1% of our calories.[1]

 

ANIMAL: LAMB

Natural lifespan: 12 years

Age at which they are typically killed: 4-6 months

ANIMAL: BREEDING EWES*

Natural lifespan: 12 years

Age at which they are typically killed: 4-6 years

ANIMAL: BREEDING RAMS*

Natural lifespan: 12 years

Age at which they are typically killed: 5 years

 
Sheep and Lamb on Field-Photo by Adrian

LAMBING

In nature, ewes give birth to their young in the spring when the weather is at its mildest and there is plenty of grass. In the animal agriculture industry, however, things are different: whilst most ewes still give birth in the spring, there is an increasing trend towards forcing an earlier pregnancy so that the lamb will be born in the winter and can be sold at market earlier than that of competitors'. 

Ewes are either mated with a ram (known as 'tupping') or subjected to artificial insemination. In this instance, semen is collected from the ram using an electric probe. The ewes are then caught and held in place (usually by strapping them to a rack) before the semen is inserted into them. This is a painful and distressing procedure for both the ewe and the ram.

Naturally, ewes would give birth to a single lamb. However, through human manipulation, many sheep are now selectively bred to produce two or even three lambs, which is intended to increase the industry’s profitability.

These multiple births are physically difficult on ewes and put them at risk of death from multiple causes, the most common being vaginal prolapse and pregnancy toxaemia (or 'Twin Lamb Disease').[2] 


Multiple births introduce other complications, often leading farmers to introduce forced adoption. As ewes have just two teats, any third lamb must be quickly found a ewe from whom they can feed. There are a few methods through which farmers achieve this:

  • If a ewe has just given birth to one lamb, the triplet lamb is smeared with her afterbirth in an attempt to convince her that the new lamb is her own. If the new lamb is already old enough to walk, the farmer will tie three of their legs together to further simulate a newborn animal.

  • If this isn't possible or the sheep refuses to allow the lamb to nurse, she will be restrained by her head in a 'sheep stock', which immobilises her so that she cannot get away.

  • If the intended foster mother has given birth to a dead lamb or the lamb has died shortly after birth, the dead lamb is skinned and the new lamb is wrapped in the rotting skin for a few days until the mother accepts them as her own.[3] 


There can be further issues with the ewe accepting the extra lamb, in which case they will either be force fed (through a tube down into their stomach), bottle fed or simply sent to market to be sold.

An estimated 15 to 20% of lambs born every year die prior to--or shortly after--birth as a result of disease, exposure, or malnutrition.  Many of these deaths are preventable. Rotavirus, for example, one of the most common culprits, is caused by crowded indoor conditions.[4]

 

Watch the video above to learn more!

 

WOOL PRODUCTION

Wild sheep shed their coats naturally during warm weather and in the past, people would simply collect their wool for use. But as sheep have become more domesticated and selectively bred, they now not only grow far more wool than they would naturally, they are no longer able to shed it during the summer. As a result, they now must be sheared so that they don’t overheat. Make no mistake--this is not an act of mercy as shearing also allows the farmers to collect more wool to sell. Sheep are usually sheared in the early summer months or, on occasions, before being housed in the winter.

But isn't shearing a bit like getting a haircut? Unfortunately not. The shearing process involves holding down the sheep on a wooden board outside or gathering them indoors in pens. This is a stressful procedure for these fearful prey animals and often leads to injury and considerable distress.


Shearers are usually paid by the volume of wool they collect, rather than by the hour. In the UK, they receive approximately £1 per fleece. This encourages fast work and little regard for the welfare of the sheep. Undercover footage of 49 English and Scottish sheep farms (above) shows that this results in frustration, shouting and violence towards these frightened, struggling animals. 

 

A second investigation, carried out on Scotland farms

As the footage above shows, sheep are often cut in the process and sewn together using a needle and thread – with no pain relief. 

The wool industries of the US, Australia Chile and Argentina have been covered extensively over the past several years, with multiple investigations revealing the same abuses in each one.  Until 2018, no such undercover footage existed for UK sheep farms. However, these investigations indicate that such violent treatment is as rampant and routine in the UK as it is other wool-producing countries. This should come as no surprise; these sheep are not beloved companion animals but business assets, and they are treated accordingly. 

 

DISEASES AND AILMENTS

As Dr Gerald Coles, a senior researcher in veterinary medicine at Bristol University, states: ‘health is declining among the UK sheep flock’.

A variety of drugs are injected or fed to farmed sheep in order to help prevent and manage the wide range of diseases that affect them. Read on to learn more about some of the more common ones.

Lameness

Lameness presents a widespread and significant issue for the industry; in fact, the majority of UK sheep farms experience some lameness in their flocks. The government's own advisory body, the FAWC, states that rates of lameness are too high and that 'much more should be done by shepherds to minimise this cause of poor welfare in sheep'.[5] Many incidents of this painful, crippling condition are the result of a disease called 'footrot', the prevalence of which is as much as 97% in UK flocks.[6]  Footrot and other contributing causes can be dealt with via vaccination or medical treatment. Some are extremely contagious, however, and thus many farmers will opt instead to kill the sheep rather than risking its spread. As much as two-thirds of the antibiotics used in the sheep industry are used to treat lameness despite the fact that the constant use of antibiotics in animal agriculture continues to be a major concern among scientists studying growing antibiotic resistance.[7]  


Mastitis

Ewes may also suffer from mastitis, a painful infection that results in inflammation and a swollen, hard udder. Like footrot, it is contagious and in part the result of poor welfare and common industry practices like selective breeding for multiple births or long periods indoors.[8]  And again, any ewes who do not respond to treatment will be sent to slaughter; their bodies are now valueless by the industry.

Blowfly

Blowfly strike is a problem that affects sheep during the warmer months; at least 75% of UK farms report it among their flocks.[9]  It occurs when blowflies lay their eggs on the sheep; very quickly the sheep are infected with maggots who eat their flesh. As mentioned previously, we have bred sheep to have much more wool than they would naturally, and thus most incidents of this flystrike occur at the sheep's rear, where the excess wool is more likely to be warm, soiled and moist.  An estimate of 12,000 sheep die every year due to blowfly strike.[10] Some farmers will dock--or cut off--the tails of lambs as a preventative measure. You can learn more about this mutilation and others below.

 

MUTILATIONS

Tail docking

It is standard practice in the UK to cut off a significant portion of the sheep's tail in order to reduce incidence of flystrike. (As mentioned in the above section, flystrike is only a significant issue because of our breeding practices.) This is typically done within the first week of life and painkillers are not normally provided as there are none licensed for use in sheep.[11] There are three main ways that farmers do this:​

  • Rubber ring - a tight rubber ring is placed around the tail, obstructing blood flow and eventually causing the tail to fall off over a four week period. This method is known to cause 'acute pain' in lambs and in fact sometimes they are so impaired as a result that they do not ingest enough colostrom from their mothers.[12] This exposes them to a variety of diseases and is just one reason for the high death rate among lambs.

  • Hot iron - a heated docking iron is used to sever the tail. The pain levels appear to be similar to that of the rubber ring.[13]

  • Knife - a sharp knife is used to cut off the majority of the tail. This is the most painful method.[14]

Castration

Male lambs who are going to be raised to adulthood are subject to another mutilation: castration.  This is done to prevent unplanned pregnancies in the sheep flock as well as to improve the flavour of their flesh. There are three common methods and all are known to cause acute pain for lambs. The rubber ring and surgical removal techniques are also likely to result in chronic pain.[15]

  • Rubber ring: A tight ring is wrapped around the lamb's testicles, restricting the blood flow so that they eventually shrivel up, die and fall off. 

  • Burdizzo: This plier-like instrument is used on the lamb's scrotum to crush the spermatic cord and surrounding vessels. 

  • Surgical removal: The testes are completely removed via an incision in the scrotum. The most certain to result in definite and complete castration, it is also more likely to result in infection and injury.

 

TRANSPORT

Sheep are transported long distances that cause them much stress, injury, and sometimes, death. They frequently suffer from heat stroke, dehydration and overcrowding. In September 2012, 40 sheep were killed after inspection at Ramsgate Port in Kent.

Vets who examined the animals found that one had a broken leg, another was sick and more than 40 were severely lame. The RSPCA said at the time that none of the animals could reach their drink holders in the vehicle. This incident led to the suspension of live exports from UK ports. Unfortunately this practice has now resumed.

Current laws in the UK allow adult sheep to be transported for up to 14 hours. A rest period of one hour for food and water must then be given before the journey can resume for a further 14 hours. And in the case of lambs, they may be transported for nine hours, followed by one hour of rest, and then an additional eight hours of travel--provided they are over just one week old. Any air transport does not count towards the total number of hours.[16]

 

SLAUGHTER


The above video is from Animal Equality's undercover investigation into a British slaughterhouse during a visit from an official Food Standards Agency inspector. Among other actions, workers beheaded sheep in front of live animals and then, under his advice, tossed their decapitated bodies on top of them. When a worker asked him whether he was happy with what they were doing, the inspector replied, 'Spot on.' The reality is that the government fully accepts this routine abuse as part of the industry.

Before being transported to slaughter, the majority of sheep are taken to livestock markets. This involves long periods of standing in uncomfortable and crowded conditions.


Over 12 million sheep are slaughtered in the UK each year.[17] Most lambs are slaughtered within the first year of their lives, between four to six months of age. Some may get to live for around 14 months. The flesh from these older lambs is known as ‘hogget’. After 1.5 years their meat is called ‘mutton’.

An average of 15% to 20% of lambing ewes are sent to slaughter every year, considered 'spent' by the industry either because of disease, injury or an inability to produce enough lambs. Though sheep can live to 12 years old, the most common age for culling is just six. 17 to 18% of UK sheep meat is made up of these 'spent' animals.[18]

In the UK, the majority of sheep are stunned prior to being killed. The two methods used are penetrating captive bolt or electrical:

  • Electrical is the most widely used method: an electrical current is passed through the animal’s brain via a large pair of tongs, causing temporary loss of consciousness. Electrical stunning is not always successful and sheep can regain consciousness before their throats are slit. They struggle for several seconds before they bleed out.

  • In the case of captive bolt stunning, a gun fires a metal bolt into the brain of the animal with the intention of causing unconsciousness.

 

References

  1. Monbiot, George, Goodbye – and good riddance – to livestock farming, The Guardian, 2017-10-4

  2. Cummings, Seán, Six illnesses to look out for in your ewes in late pregnancy and lambing time, Agriland.ie, 2016-1-1

  3. Kippax, James, Beginners Guide to Mothering & Fostering Lambs, Kippax Farms, 2020

  4. SHAWG, Sheep Health and Welfare Report, 2018-11-19, pp. 20-21

  5. FAWC, Opinion on Lameness in Sheep, 2011-3 [retrieved 2021-5]

  6. Ibid.

  7. NADIS, Lameness Control in Sheep[retrieved 2021-5]

  8. Ibid.

  9. NADIS, Blowfly Strike (cutaneous myiasis, maggots), [retrieved 2021-5]

  10. Blowfly Strike, Farmers Weekly, 2004-8-25

  11. British Veterinary Association, Sheep castration, tail docking, and pain management, 2020-2

  12. Ibid.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Ibid.

  15. Ibid.

  16. DEFRA, Welfare of Animals at Transport: Advice for transporters of sheep 

  17. Wunsch, Nils-Gerrit, Total amount of annually slaughtered sheep and lambs in the United Kingdom from 2003 to 2018, 2019-9-27

  18. AHDB Beef & Lamb, Lamb Briefing, 2016-8-31