Sheep Farming: Behind the Scenes of the Wool Industry

what is sheep farming

Sheep farming is certainly nothing new: wool has been a fabric source since before 10,000 BC and continues to be used in fashion, bedding, and carpeting around the world. 

Unfortunately, there is a dark side to wool production that many are unaware of. Tail docking, castration, and mulesing are still common practices within many sheep farming operations to this day.

Lamb meat, lanolin wax, parchment paper, milk, and cheese are also produced from sheep and sold globally. Humans have been recorded using sheep for their skin, meat, and milk since around 11,000 BC, and sheep with thick wool were introduced around 6,000 BC in Iran.

The domestication of sheep led to a boom in the wool trade around the world and was a large contributor to the wealth of Spain. Riches from the wool trade even helped fund the voyages of the conquistadors to the New World.

Wool isn’t the only profitable substance extracted from sheep. An oily substance called lanolin is meant to protect sheep’s skin from infections and waterproof their coat, but humans have been using it as a moisturizer for thousands of years. You can even still find it in modern makeup such as lipsticks and mascara. 

Cheeses like feta, ricotta, and Pecorino Romano were originally made with sheep’s milk and many authentic kinds of cheese remain that way today.

Whenever there is the potential for exploitation and profit, factory farms are never far behind.

What is Sheep Farming?

Sheep farming is the breeding, raising, and slaughter of sheep for their meat, wool, and milk. Around 2.3 million sheep are killed every year in the US alone, and we don’t even make the top-10 list for slaughtering the most sheep per country, but more on that later.

Most sheep meat comes from lambs killed at around 6-8 months old, which is only a fraction of their natural lifespan of 10-12 years. Once adult sheep can no longer meet the farmer’s wool demands, since their wool production gradually slows as they grow older, they are sent to slaughter.

In addition to meat, wool, and milk, byproducts like lanolin oil and sheepskin are also profitable.

Smaller “traditional” farms have dissolved and large industrialized factory farms have taken their place. In order to keep production high, cruel and unusual practices like mulesing, the removal of skin around the buttocks of a sheep, are used to keep medical complications low. 

Lambs are gentle, docile animals and can remember up to fifty human and sheep faces, come when called, follow close behind, and can even stand where ordered to

Because lambs are easy to manage and killed at just 6-8 months old, they are considered a quick return on investment. Whenever anything is “quick” in the meat, dairy, and fur industry, it is usually the perfect opportunity for cruelty and manipulation to creep in.

Sheep Production Worldwide

sheep production worldwide
Image via

Most of the world’s wool and lamb come from Australia and New Zealand and are sent to places like the Middle East, the European Union, and the United States.

Sheep are transported by sea and trucks for up to three weeks at times with little to no rest, insufficient space, improper eating schedules, and inadequate time to roam. These basic allowances are often required by law by the recipient of the shipment but seldom applied.

The video below shows undercover footage of the lack of adherence to welfare requirements on the arduous journey from Australia as sheep are packed into scorching ships with no relief.

When traveling on these ships, outside temperatures rise to around 36 degrees Celsius, or 97 degrees Fahrenheit, with 93% humidity. 

There is no breeze or air circulation within the ship and the “Death Zone” heatwave lasts for days. Hundreds of sheep die in transportation due to heatstroke, dehydration, and hunger.

The sheep that succumb to the heat are then “overboarded” meaning they are dumped off the side of the boat into the ocean.

The conditions get so miserable that even crew members onboard will faint and get sick. But luckily for them, they are allowed the “privilege” of stepping outside into the breeze. The animals are not.

Australia’s export regulations prohibit pregnant sheep from boarding the ships but this order is often overlooked and lambs are born in the sweltering conditions. Many die after being trampled in the cramped quarters.

Even the regulations that are in place are not always just. Up to 2% of sheep on a single voyage can die without any risk of investigation. When up to 70,000 sheep are packed into one single ship at a time, that 2% amounts to around 1,400 sheep.

The animals that actually survive the transportation process are then dropped off at their final “resting” place, where they will soon be slaughtered.

Sheep Farming in the United States

sheep production in america
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Even though the United States slaughters around 2.3 million sheep and lambs each year, the importation of lamb and mutton has increased steadily from 2012 to 2018, resulting in around 273 million pounds in 2018 alone.

People aren’t eating lamb and mutton as much as they did hundreds of years ago and wool alternatives are booming. Even though importation is rising, the United States’ sheep production has taken a hit.

Lamb producers blame WWII for the lack of demand since many Americans who served in Europe were served canned mutton often labeled as lamb. 

Mutton has a distinct flavor that is not always preferred, so many people were completely turned off to any sheep meat once they returned home. This led to many families discontinuing the use of lamb and mutton altogether.

In 1995, government funding to wool producers was cut, so the industry started to quake. Other materials such as cotton became more popular and more affordable, so wool was no longer needed as the main fabric source.

Though the United States has struggled with its own sheep production and has relied on the importation of lamb and mutton from other countries, the sheep industry is said to be on the rise.

Lamb is a popular protein source in countries like Mongolia, Iceland, Greece, and Iran, and the US has noticed an increase due to the immigration of these ethnic groups. Sheep farmers are hoping this will soon lead to a boom in business, but consumers are opening their eyes to the cruelty lying within the meat and wool industries.

How Profitable is Sheep Farming?

is sheep farming profitable

As mentioned before, sheep and lambs are raised predominantly for their wool, milk, and meat, but byproducts such as lanolin oil and sheepskin are also profitable.

Archeological evidence has shown that wild sheep were domesticated over 10,000 years ago for meat and milk, and a few thousand years later, after selective breeding eliminated course fleece, sheep were raised for wool.

Asia began trading sheep and their products with Africa and Europe and soon people around the world realized how profitable sheep could be due to their wide variety of resources.

Classic Greek and Roman writings mention selective sheep breeding and wool processing, and there are even mentions of sheep farming in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.

Main Exporters of Sheep

Fast forward to today’s time and you will still see sheep farming as a major source of income around the world.

China has the highest population of sheep followed by Australia, India, and parts of the Middle East, but Australia is one of the main exporters of meat and wool.

In 2017 to 2018, Australia produced almost 532,000 tonnes of lamb and 204,000 tonnes of mutton. The gross value was estimated at $4.3 billion. Lamb and mutton production (including live exports) contributed 7% to the total farm value of $60.5 billion.

Mutton and lamb meat are the most profitable sheep resources, but wool, dairy, and lanolin oil are advantageous for farmers as well.

Australia produces the most wool in the world, and actually makes up one-fifth of the 2.1 million tonnes produced worldwide.

The Australian wool industry, exports alone, was estimated at around $3 billion in 2016. Now factor in the money made on meat, milk, skins, and oils, and you will understand why people stay in the sheep business.

Importing Sheep Products

The U.S. imports over 65 million pounds of sheep cheese annually worth around $115 million wholesale. Manchego from Spain, Ricotta, and Pecorino from Italy, Feta from Greece and Roquefort from France are among the most popular. Yogurt made from sheep milk also exists on the market.

Lanolin, the waxy substance secreted from sheep under their wool, is a natural moisturizer for sheep’s skin, but humans have been using this oil for hundreds of years as well.

Lanolin is found in moisturizers, hair care products, makeup, and baby’s diaper rash creams, and consumer reports expect the lanolin market to skyrocket as the demand for more natural products continues to grow.

The market is expected to exceed $450 million by 2024, but if people only knew what went on behind the scenes in the sheep farming industry, they would surely spend their money elsewhere.

Does Mulesing Still Happen?

does mulesing still happen
Image via PETA

Mulesing is the practice of removing a portion of a sheep’s skin near the buttocks with sheers or a knife. This process is meant to prevent maggots from burrowing deep into the wool and causing infections, known as “flystrike,” but comes with its own health risks.

Once the skin is removed, scar tissue will eventually grow and leave a “clean” area that is not as likely to breed bugs or retain fecal matter or urine. Merino sheep are more often exposed to this cruelty because they have wrinkle-prone skin. Tail docking is another traumatic form of “infection prevention” seen regularly in the industry.

Often, lambs are restrained and their bottoms are mutilated without anesthetic, which is incredibly painful. The open wounds are also a cause for concern since they can leave the sheep vulnerable to infections before the scar tissue grows in.

Though the process is known to be painful, many procedural manuals do not require the use of antiseptics, anesthesia, or painkillers.

The ironic part is that mulesing is meant to prevent infection that comes from a buildup of fecal matter but the action itself can actually increase the risk of infection due to the open wound and the complications that come with it.

Instead of mutilating the tails or buttocks of sheep, farmers could disinfect the area themselves a few times per year, but this is not considered worth the time or effort.

New Zealand recently banned mulesing in 2018, but unfortunately Australia, the largest sheep producer, still allows it. The good news is that knowledge of this practice coupled with pressure from activists will hopefully set Australia in motion to follow suit.

Why is Mulesing Done?

The purpose of mulesing is to reduce the risk of “fly strike” which is when flies lay eggs inside the wool of sheep which then hatch into maggots that feed on flesh. Gross, right?

Fly strike can be serious, even fatal, so action is absolutely required to reduce sheep’s risk, but there are other non-invasive techniques that do not require tail docking or mulesing.

One way to prevent mulesing would be to selectively breed sheep with less wool around their bottoms. Merino sheep naturally have more skin and wool around their rear end, so breeding a completely different type of sheep would also be a viable option.

Another alternative would be to adjust the shearing schedule to remove wool in the summertime when fly strike is most common. This is a pretty simple solution since the sheep will eventually be sheared anyway.

Some farmers “crutch” their sheep, meaning that they routinely shear the wool around the tail and rear legs to reduce the risk of urine or feces collection.

There are also chemicals that can keep flies away for up to 12 weeks that requires only the simple spraying of a hose hooked up to a tank.

Producing quality wool is possible without mutilation, so there is really no point in mulesing.

Mulesing in the Wool Industry

Wool producers make money off of high-quality wool, so obviously they do not want their sheep to die of infections that would result in them losing money.

Mulesing first began as a tactic to prevent infection but is an unnecessary and cruel procedure. If farmers really want to care for their sheep, new techniques must come into play.

New Zealand banned mulesing after high pressure from consumers and animal rights advocates. They began the mulesing banning process in 2007 and the official ban went into effect October 1, 2018.

Activists have been urging Australia to end this cruel practice for years, but no meaningful regulations have taken effect.

The Australian Wool Innovation Limited is a non-profit organization dedicated to researching the most humane and high-quality techniques for wool production. They even have a guide titled, “Planning for a Non-Mulesed Merino Enterprise.” With such a resource available, there is no reason mulesing should still be standard practice within Australian farms or any others.

Consumers are becoming more conscious of where their products are coming from, so it would be wise from a business standpoint for producers to be mulesing-free. Cruelty-free methods are imperative if brands want to stay relevant.

Mulesing-Free Brands

vegan wool

Consumers are becoming more conscious of their purchases, and not many people have the desire to buy products from tortured animals once they are educated on the matter.

Non-mulesed fabrics are becoming increasingly popular and are a threat to current wool producers. The lack of demand for mulesed wool is sending a ripple effect into the whole sheep production supply chain.

It is possible to choose mulesing-free wool products from companies like Smartwool, but there are many natural plant-based fibers that are great alternatives instead.

Some wool alternatives use plastic as a filler, but fibers such as cotton, hemp, bamboo, and linen are friendly to the planet and to the animals.


Mulesing is a procedure that is cruel, unusual, and unnecessary. Sheep are gentle animals that do not deserve to be mutilated just so humans can exploit them.

There are plenty of alternative methods of raising mulesed sheep as well as plant-based wool alternatives that are more affordable and sustainable.

With the resources, technology, and knowledge available today, mulesing is a tired practice.

Join thousands of activists urging Australia, the biggest sheep supplier in the world, to end the cruel act of mulesing by signing petitions like this one.

Eventually, sheep farming will be a thing of the past. In the meantime, seek out alternatives that don’t support the wool industry and the needless slaughter of sheep.