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Mulesing in sheep

Mulesing involves the removal of skin around a lamb’s breech and tail to prevent flystrike. The Australian wool and sheep meat industry acknowledges the welfare issues involved in mulesing, and is working towards phasing this practice out.

Flystrike, also known as breech strike, is caused by the Australian sheep blowfly, Lucilia cuprina. The tail and breech area (back and top of hind legs under tail) of a sheep can become contaminated with urine and faeces, particularly where the skin has folds and wrinkles.

These moist areas attract blowflies, which lay their eggs in the soiled wool and wrinkles of the sheep. Once the eggs hatch, usually with 12-24 hours, the larvae (maggots) begin to feed off the flesh of the sheep for up to three days, leading to pain, distress and even death.

Mulesing, which involves the removal of skin from around a lamb’s breech and tail with shears within four to six weeks of birth, helps to prevent flystrike by removing the folds and wrinkles that can become susceptible to contamination and attract blowflies.

While mulesing has been common practice in the industry since the 1930s, Australian wool and sheep meat producers acknowledge the animal wellbeing issues involved. Therefore, phasing this practice out, whilst still effectively preventing flystrike, is a major goal of the industry.


What are the alternatives to mulesing?

The Australian wool and sheepmeat industry is currently working with the CSIRO to identify alternative welfare-friendly measures to prevent flystrike. The industry’s primary aim is to breed livestock that are resistant to flystrike so that mulesing is no longer required.

Alternative measures include:

  • Selective breeding for more flystrike resistant sheep – breech strike resistance is being incorporated into Merino breeding programs so that breeders and buyers of rams can select plainer bodied sheep that are more likely to be flystrike resistant.
  • Interim pain relief solutions – until alternative practices are implemented, pain relief solutions are available to reduce the pain associated with mulesing.
  • Novel chemical approaches – in response to the increasing incidence of insecticide resistance, researchers are developing a new type of chemical that can be used for blowfly control.
  • Fly control options – research is also ongoing into the use of sterile insects and novel biological controls to determine their effect on the reduction of fly numbers. There is some initial research being undertaken to develop a flystrike vaccine as well.




Progressing towards a non-mulesed future

Across the Australian wool and sheepmeat industry, change is happening, with industry bodies heavily focused on helping producers move away from mulesing. Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) has a flystrike program which aims to identify practical solutions to prevent flystrike, ensuring the lifetime welfare of individual sheep, whilst reducing reliance on mulesing. And Sheep Producers Australia, the national body representing Australian sheep producers, encourages members to phase out mulesing as soon as practical, and until this occurs, recommends that best practice pain management is followed. The provision of pain relief for mulesing is currently mandated in Victoria. (Source)

Over the past 10 years, an increasing number of wool and sheepmeat producers have been able to cease mulesing, due largely to the shift away from breeds, such as Merino sheep, that are highly susceptible to flystrike.

Where mulesing does take place, the use of pain relief is on the rise. In an AWI 2018 Benchmarking Australian Sheep Parasite Control national online survey, 69% of respondents from Merino x Merino enterprises reported that they mules their lambs. More than 90% of respondents who mules said they use pain relief (analgesics and/or anaesthetics) when mulesing their wether lambs, while 87% reported using pain relief with their ewe lambs. (Source)


Did you know?

  • Each year, flystrike costs the industry over $173 million annually in prevention, treatment and productivity losses. (Source)
  • Since genetic indicator traits for flystrike resistance was introduced 10 years ago, more and more sheep breeders are seeking Merino rams with these traits. (Source)
  • The amount of wool sold from unmulesed sheep is currently around 17 per cent and steadily increasing. (Source)