Think wool is harmless? Think again.


What would you do if some sick individual tried to cut large chunks of skin and flesh from around your anus?

You would probably kick their anus. And what would you say if the sicko claimed he was just doing his job? You’d say, “Screw your job.”

Every year, industrial wool farmers in Australia (the largest producer of wool in the world) routinely mutilate tens of millions of helpless lambs on wool farms in just this way. It’s called “mulesing,” and it entails removing large swaths of skin and flesh from the area around the anus — and for females, around the vulva as well. (Outraged yet? If not, see the graphic video to the right.)

The practice is defended as an effective means of combating a blowfly infestation called “flystrike,” which sometimes afflicts the unnaturally dense, urine- and feces-encrusted skin folds around the rear ends of Merino sheep. (In Australia, 89% of their 90 million farmed sheep are Merino; most of the rest have some Merino genetic material.) Industry beneficiaries and spokespersons would have you believe that mulesing is simply meant to benefit the sheep from a distressing and possibly deadly pest that has always afflicted sheep in Australia and New Zealand. 

End of story. Nothing to see here.

Or not. As is so often the case, examination of the facts tells a more sinister tale. Flystrike only afflicts farmed sheep, not wild sheep, in Australia. Why? First, the Merino is not native to Australia and is easy prey for the native blowflies. Second, the industry has engineered the Merino to have ever-increasing amounts of wool-bearing skin, thus increasing wool output and profits along with a more attractive target for blowflies. This unnaturally high skin surface area creates very high densities of skin folds, which lead to an extreme overabundance of heat-,



Buying wool directly supports cruel practices such as mulesing, castration, tail-docking, and ear-punching. Meanwhile, industrial wool farming is energy-inefficient, land- and water-intensive, and highly pollutive.


Wool industry investigation. Yes, narrated by Pink:
Here, a lamb allowed to live in peace:
moisture-, and excrement-trapping — but profitable — wool. Of course, it also creates very miserable sheep, even when they aren’t being assaulted by handlers and shearers. And with each breeding generation, the industry favors those sheep with the densest skin folds, thus ensuring that each successive generation will be even more vulnerable to flystrike — thereby perpetuating what they want us to believe is the “need” for mulesing. 

In sum, wool producers created the flystrike danger for sheep, and now use it as an excuse to inflict further cruelty on these sensitive, innocent creatures. For the industry, what really matters is that more skin folds entails more skin area per sheep, which entails more wool per sheep, which entails higher profit margins. That’s the bottom line (literally). If they have to mutilate innocent creatures along the way, well, they’re obviously willing to do that.

Amid threats of global boycotts of mulesed wool in the early 2000s, the industry in leading-producer Australia promised in 2004 to implement a mulesing alternative by 2010. In typical fashion, they reneged at the last moment. Not that their proposed solutions would have made things much better. The industry’s leading “alternative” to mulesing involved harsh clips secured so tightly around the anus of lambs that bloodflow would be cut off to a large area of skin, leading the skin to literally die and fall off. Some alternative, right?

What about wool from sheep that haven’t been mulesed?

First thing to note is that we presently have no way of knowing whether or not mainstream wool items contain wool from mulesed sheep. There isn’t any labeling to that effect — and in fact, since the wool from millions of sheep gets mixed up during transport and manufacture, it seems pretty likely that the wool items you see in stores contain mulesed sheep’s wool.

Still, let’s say we could be sure. While we can agree that non-mulesed sheep have it a little better, it’s kind of like saying it’s better to have a single-bed cell in prison. Sure, it is better than sharing a cell. But you’re still in prison. 

Of course, prison is a cakewalk compared to being harvested. Nearly all wool-farmed sheep are tail-docked and castrated (if male), and their ears are hole-punched. Meanwhile, sheep handlers and shearers are cruel to the animals in all other kinds of ways — and why wouldn’t they be, since mutilation is in the job description? According to an individual who spoke with PETA:

“[T]he shearing shed must be one of the worst places in the world for cruelty to animals … I have seen shearers punch sheep with their shears or their fists until the sheep’s nose bled. I have seen sheep with half their faces shorn off …”

The truth is that industrial animal farming is an inherently exploitative and neglectful process. Animals are treated as commodities — not the sensitive creatures they actually are. As a part of that, millions of sheep perish every year on large wool farms due to the disease and individual neglect that occur when animals meant to roam freely are squeezed together. Adequate health and veterinary care for ailments deemed less-than-immediately-critical is non-existent. And, at the end of their “productive” lives, they’re shipped to slaughter — commonly to countries where they don’t even have nominal animal protection or welfare standards. (See the very graphic video above, which reveals the horrifying, gruesome fate for millions and millions of “spent” sheep each year.)

Meanwhile, the environmental effects of wool farming are catastrophic. Indeed, any animal farming, compared to plant farming, is extremely inefficient and wasteful. It’s a logical imperative. On the one hand, you can cultivate plants and feed them to humans and other animals that already exist. Or, on the other, you can breed hundreds of millions of new animals,which requires vast amounts of land and water, both to house and hydrate the sheep and to cultivate the massive amount ofplant food required to feed them. These hundreds of millions of sheep then produce astronomical amounts of excrement and bodily waste, deeply contaminating local environments and expelling climate change agents like methane and carbon dioxide. Add to all of this that in many countries, including leading-producer Australia, sheep are non-native, which makes them a special kind of threat to local ecosystems. (According to the Australian wool industry, sheep were introduced in 1788 by arriving Europeans.) Animal farming necessitates all of the environmental costs of plant farming, and then it multiplies them.

The bottom line.

Buying wool supports cruel industry practices such as mulesing, castration, tail-docking, and ear-punching. Industrial wool farming is also energy-inefficient, land- and water-intensive, and highly pollutive.

Wool Steps Up Greenwashing Campaign

Wool Steps Up Greenwashing Campaign

The wool industry has put a lot of money – and a royal patron – behind new efforts to convince people that wool is sustainable.  But let’s get one thing out of the way, right away, ok? Telling people wool is green by building a PR campaign around burying it and celebrating its biodegradability is like telling people that beef is green by burying it and celebrating its biodegradability.

Let’s put on our greewashing goggles and take a closer look at this. The glaring problem is that it’s not the sheep’s hair per se that’s the environmental and ethical disaster. Instead, it’s the inextricable raising-of-the-livestock part. But take those goggles off and just shhhh because the wool industry doesn’t want to talk about that.

A campaign like this is so dangerous because it perpetuates a few myths that are sacred to the bottom-lines of the sheep and other livestock industries. Here are the top three myths:

Sheep don’t just spring-up from the ether with a thick coat of wool to shear off. They must be bred. Raised. Reared. Fed. Watered. Grazed or confined. Modified. Tracked. Measured. Processed. Shipped. Slaughtered.  The amount of resources it takes to produce livestock isn’t something to brush off. In fact, livestock are the single greatest cause of the worst environmental problems. Worse than the transportation sector. With around 1 billion sheep worldwide, consider the mind-boggling impacts on land, water, air and energy. The United Nation FAO certainly does.

Don’t bet the farm on it. The thing about synthetics is that they are always becoming more efficient, more refined, and more scalable. For example, the company that makes lycra has developed a method of using fermented vegetation to produce one of the main ingredients. Researches in Japan have developed a bio-based polyester made from waste molasses. We have only scratched the surface of the potential of bioplastics.  Scalability is the issue when it comes to mass-production of textiles. Any time animals are put into a production model and scaled-up to meet massive demands, it is practically a law of business that corners are cut. The mantra of maximum profit at minimal cost has dire ramifications on both people and animals. The veterinary, social and psychological needs of animals continue to both humble us and evade inclusion in our business models that prefer to cast them a “units of production”. In addition, a lot of sheep are put in “sheep dip“, a bath of toxic chemicals (organophosphate pesticides (OPs)) to prevent infestations – and people are getting sick from it.

Picture a wide open space. Lush and green. A few sheep speckle the landscape beyond a farmhouse – mother sheep with lambs, a few sheep lazing in the grass. A concerned shepherd watches on. Images like these are used all the time to represent the wool industry. But like all animal agriculture, modern techniques and increasing demands have changed our naive ideas about where wool comes from and also about how sheep “retire“. Instead picture this: sheep farms that are millions of acres large in China India and AustraliaMulesing, where strips of flesh are cut away from the behind of sheep without anesthesia. Castration. Live export on huge ships (see image below) with no food or water or veterinary care to the Middle East once the sheep is “spent”. Upon arrival they have their throats slit while still conscious (according to Halal and/or Kosher law). And the most depraved practice? Astrakhan (also know as Karakul) where either the fetus is cut out of the mother, or young infant sheep are skinned for one of the most desired luxury textiles in the world.

Written by joshuakatcher

Joshua Katcher started The Discerning Brute in 2008 as a resource for men who want to make intelligent decisions concerning their lifestyles. With a focus on “fashion, food & etiquette for the ethically handsome man”, The Discerning Brute produces expert, essential content and boldly takes a stand. Brave GentleMan, the integrated, eCommerce brother-site of The Discerning Brute was launched in 2011 and features “principled attire” and “smart supplies” handpicked for informed indulgence.

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