Group walks ultra-fine line

Melissa WilliamsCountryman

Ultra-fine wool production systems that house sheep in sheds have become the target of a publicity campaign by Animals Australia.

The group provided footage of sheep kept in single pens to the Channel 10 program 6.30 with George Negus, which aired last week.

Animals Australia claimed this practice was cruel and adversely impacted on animal behaviour and welfare.

The group also called for public support to lobby Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu and Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh to ban the practice of keeping sheep in single pens for wool production in Victoria.

Animals Australia claimed that thousands of sheep were kept in close confinement in Australia, mostly in Victoria, and that these animals commonly displayed abnormal behaviours such as head butting, pacing or chewing on pen fixtures. It said it had found two sheds that operated like ‘sheep factories’, confining about 2000 sheep in single pens.

But WA Superfine Woolgrowers’ Association vice-president David Lindsay said wool produced from sheep housed in sheds made up less than 0.05 per cent of the national clip.

He said the only operation he knew about that housed sheep in single pens was The Wool Factory in Horsham, Victoria, and it had started as a marginal activity to employ people with physical, intellectual and social disabilities.

Professor Lindsay said there were no shedded sheep enterprises in WA and genetic and technological advances in the wool industry in recent years meant superfine sheep could produce superior quality fibre in the paddock without the need for sheds.

“We are seeing 11 and 12 micron ultra-fine woolclips that are very sound being produced from paddock-run sheep, ” he said. “I have produced 14.2 micron wool from my superfine Merino breeding operation that measured 51 Newtons/kilotex from sheep raised in the paddock.”

Professor Lindsay said the practice of housing sheep in sheds was costly and labour intensive, because sheep required feeding 365 days of the year and, of the shedded sheep operations left in Australia, most used multi-sheep pens, not single sheep pens.

He disputed the claim by Animals Australia that shedded sheep were stressed, because the wool from these sheep was incredibly sound.

“If the sheep were stressed, the wool would have a break and low staple strength,” he said.

“Sheep that are shedded for wool production are fed a very constant diet with well-balanced nutrition to meet their requirements.

“They don’t suffer extremes of diet — as WA paddock-raised sheep would have done in the past 12 months because of the season — and they are not exposed to big weather variations.”

Professor Lindsay said it did not appear that the actions of Animal Australia were having an impact on the purchasing or downstream use of superfine and ultra-fine wool.

Animals Australia claimed it had stopped Italian fashion designer Loro Piana from purchasing wool from single penned sheep.

But Professor Lindsay said the actions of the group were unlikely to make a big difference to the Australian wool industry, because more than 99 per cent of the national clip was grown in the paddock.

An Australian Wool Innovation spokesman said the body had been warned about the Animals Australia campaign and made sure the views of the Australian Superfine Wool Growers’ Association were aired on the 6.30 with George Negus program.

He stressed that 99.9 per cent of Australian wool was produced from free-range sheep run in paddocks.

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