Photo: Pia Sarker
In Canada, sheep are kept for meat, wool and dairy production, although meat production is most common. In 2020 744,500 sheep and lambs were slaughtered in Canada
Sheep are shy, gentle, and emotionally complex animals and like to be with their flock where they form strong bonds with one another.
Stressful and painful procedures
- Like many species, sheep are also subjected to surgical procedures such as tail docking, castration and ear tagging without anaesthetics or post-surgical pain management.
- Sheep are sheared once a year. Shearing is a necessary but stressful procedure due to the required restraint as well as the noise, heat and contact of the shears. Handling and removal from the flock cause sheep a great deal of stress. The shearing process itself can result in cuts unless the shearer is trained and extremely careful.
- Ewes (female sheep) typically lamb once per year in the fall or spring. Some producers have accelerated breeding programs where a sheep may be pregnant too often such as three times in two years. Three potential welfare concerns stood out overall. The first, for lambs, is the potential for lower birth weight in autumn or winter compared with those born during traditional spring lambing. The second, for ewes, is reduced time for post-partum and post-lactation recovery. A third primary concern relevant to both ewes and lambs is that accelerated lambing can require changes to health control measures to minimize the risk of disease.
Neonatal care includes weaning
- There has been relatively little research on the welfare implications of artificial rearing. There is some evidence that it is beneficial for lambs to be reared by their dam so that they receive the advantages of maternal behaviour and normal suckling.
- When lambs are separated from their mother, they can experience emotional stress.
- Natural weaning generally takes place slowly, with the ewe completely preventing the lamb from sucking between 125 and 160 days of age, with some variation depending on the level of protein in the diet and the breed of sheep. This natural weaning off of milk is not generally accompanied by immediate social separation which is a part of artificial weaning.
- The available science generally supports weaning closer to the time frame of the natural process as preferable from a welfare perspective. For example, while abrupt weaning at any age before natural weaning is likely to cause stress, the stress responses of lambs weaned at 50 days of age are higher than those of lambs weaned at 100 days of age.
A special note about the Australian wool industry
- Mulesing is a cruel practice common to the Australian merino sheep industry, which is used to prevent fly-strike, a painful and potentially deadly condition that afflicts sheep. Mulesing involves cutting off chunks of the sheep’s flesh from the rump area to prevent fly-strike. Although fly-strike is a serious welfare concern in sheep, other practices exist to manage it. Mulesing is not practised or condoned in Canada, the U.S. or Europe. Several retailers have vowed to market only muscling-free merino wool.4You can help sheep by refusing to purchase Merino wool products that are not muscling-free.