A Wool Sweater Is Not a Mink Coat

I am a sheep shearer and I don’t hurt animals. Those who know me or have seen me shear don’t doubt this for a minute. It’s also assumed because I’m female: I’ve had more than a few wool producers look at me and say “Oh! You’re a lady shearer! You’d never hurt an animal.”

Despite this, I am occasionally called upon to clarify that I do not hurt sheep. Every so often a piece like this comes out, with sensationalist rhetoric and incomplete or incorrect information geared to tell one side of a story. On the bright side, pieces like these provide a great opportunity for me to bring the facts, dispel some myths and remind tiny flock owners that I understand their sheep are sometimes more pets than livestock.

In a nutshell…
The differences between industrial and small flock sheep shearing are much like those between industrial food production and small organic farms. They barely resemble each other in terms of incentives, morality and quality. Unfortunately, the atrocities of the anomalous industrial food world are often presented as “normal” when they are in fact the farthest thing from it.

Here are the facts from my side of the fence.

1. Fact: Sheep are not killed during shearing.
The Independent piece is titled “A wool jumper is just as cruel as a mink coat.” If you equate animal death with a routine hair cut, that title might work for you. But, unlike the unfortunate mink, sheep are not killed during shearing in order to become a sweater. Wool is sheared from the sheep with shears that look like oversized versions of those used to shave our heads.

The accidental death of a sheep while shearing would be a nightmare for me.

2. Fact: Wool sheep and meat sheep are different.
Sheep are generally raised for one of two primary purposes. They are either “wool sheep,” bred for eons to produce longer-length wool for clothing, or “meat sheep,” larger-sized breeds raised primarily as food and whose wool is a byproduct. It’s rare for a single breed to produce equally great wool and meat, simply because they were bred for one or the other for many thousands of years.

Wool sheep produce wool year after year, which creates farm income year after year. Meat sheep, by contrast, are generally killed before they are one-year-old (though that decision is made according to the lamb’s weight, not age) to become lamb meat. They will be sheared once before going to the slaughterhouse.

Though I’ve never encountered this attitude among shearers I know, I am sure there are shearers who might think “Well, this sheep is going to be killed soon anyway, so it doesn’t matter if I’m careless with my shearing.”

Well, not necessarily…

3. Fact: It doesn’t pay to hurt sheep.
Hurting a sheep also hurts the final product, whether it’s wool or meat. This creates a risk of less money in a business in which prices are already low and margins are razor thin.

Wool producers want their sheep alive and well. The healthier the sheep, the better condition the fleece will be in. It’s similar to humans: the healthier our diets and the more fresh air, sunshine and exercise we get, the better we look and the longer we live — and the more productive we can be for our corporate masters (teasing).

Fleece quality is of paramount importance to wool producers (often called “fine fiber producers”) whose fleeces become products for hand spinners and knitters. The longer and stronger the wool, the better the end product is and the more money it can fetch. Good yarn isn’t cheap, and people paying $150+ for sweater quantities of yarn have good reason to expect high quality and yarn that won’t break when they tug on it.

Even “meat sheep” must, by law, be able to walk in to a slaughterhouse alive and of their own volition. If a shearer has cut a sheep so badly that it bleeds to death, that’s lost money to a rancher. In addition, bruised meat looks different and may not sell well or at all. One rancher I know, who primarily raises wool sheep, asks that we be careful when catching sheep to give them immunizations or to weigh them. Even tugging on their fleece a bit can leave a bruise that would be visible on meat, if the sheep should die for some reason.

Whatever your ethics, wool producers have no incentive to hurt their sheep or to allow others to do so. I know fiber producers who have asked rough shearers to stop working and leave. Word gets around and that shearer gets fewer and fewer jobs, which means less money.

4. Fact: The quality of the shear affects the quality of the fleece.
The article in the Independent states “Most shearers are paid by volume, not by the hour, which means that they have an incentive to work as quickly as they can, with little regard for the sheep’s welfare.” This is partially true.

I’ve already addressed why sheep welfare matters, above.

It is true that most shearers are paid by animal, not by the hour. For some shearers, this may translate into an incentive to work quickly. But “quickly” is not synonymous with “hurting animals.” Truly great, experienced shearers who follow proper, efficient shearing methods (like the Godfrey Bowen New Zealand method) can shear sheep quite quickly, in 10 minutes or less, and never nick or hurt an animal. This pace maintains quality and still enables a shearer to earn $40-$60/hour at $10/sheep.

Remember, the sheep aren’t in a natural position when they’re being sheared. We want to minimize their time in an uncomfortable position while also providing the highest quality shear possible, without any harm to the sheep.

For less experienced or sloppy shearers, the ability to work quickly can affect the quality of their shear, and that affects the bottom line. Second cuts in a fleece (not in the animal’s skin) are a telltale sign of this. When a sheared fleece is shaken out, the second cuts are the small pieces that fall to the floor. Since wool is sold by weight, every second cut is lost wool and lost money. Second cuts also shorten and weaken the wool’s staple length, which is an issue when spinning the wool into yarn.

5. Fact: Not keeping sheep off food and water for 10-12 hours before shearing can kill them.
The Independent article states that sheep “had been denied food and water the night before being shorn, in part to weaken them so that they would put up minimal resistance.” A shearer is quoted as saying “but if you’d been starved for 24 hours, you wouldn’t have much of a fight.”

This provides incomplete information.

First, I have never known a sheep that was kept from food for 24 hours. There is absolutely no need for that. When sheep are in a comfortable position during shearing (not on their tails, for instance!), they are generally calm and don’t struggle.

There is a need to keep sheep from food and water for 10-12 hours before shearing. It’s not to reduce their energy, but to keep them comfortable and prevent heart attacks. The best explanation I ever got was from one of my instructors: “Imagine if I fed you Thanksgiving dinner and then asked you to stay bent over for an hour. You wouldn’t feel too good, would you? When the sheep have all this food and water inside, it can push up against their organs when you’re shearing them. They can have a heart attack.”

He then went on to describe two sheep he’d sheared who had not been kept from food and water. One died right between his knees from a heart attack. Another went into cardiac arrest and he was able to save it by administering CPR.

Think about it: Do you need to eat all night long? No. Sure, sheep are ruminants with four stomachs, unlike us. They do need to eat more than we do. But, just as we can go 10 hours without food and water during the night, or fast for 12-24 hours before a doctor’s appointment, so can they. Usually, I begin shearing at 7 AM or 8 AM, so the sheep has gone the night without food and water and then has it on schedule the following morning, after I’ve sheared them.

6. Fact: The production of many “humane” fabrics is terrible for wildlife. 
The article states: “With so many humane fabrics, including rayon, cotton, hemp, acrylic, nylon and microfibre, there really can be no excuse for supporting the violent wool industry.”

Nothing is free. Cotton production hurts wildlife. Water is diverted to cotton from food crops in many parts of the world, and it’s a huge cause of pollution, and soil erosion and degradation. Microscopic pieces of synthetic fabrics like nylon and microfiber end up in the ocean, where they accumulate in and hurt ocean life.

7. Fact: The “severely crowded spaces” are temporary, pre-shearing pens. 
In a normal operation, sheep are penned shortly before shearing and released immediately afterward. Sheep are flock animals: they will crowd together even in wide, open spaces. But the pens shown in the photos are temporary pens, where animals are sorted prior to shearing. On the ranches I’ve worked, sheep are released to food and pasture immediately after shearing.


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