PETER SMALL. Mulesing; Have we convinced ourselves of our own rhetoric to the wool industries detriment?

It is five years since I first went to China and I heard the plea of wool processors for Australia to do something to increase the availability wool from non-mulsed sheep. I responded with the well-worn rhetoric as to why we had to mules. You all know the lines; – “Mulesing is the lesser of two evils; a death from fly strike is much worse 

Last week I was again in China, answering the same question, and as I mouthed the same answer as 5 years ago, (and many times in the interim). I thought to myself, wait a minute what I am mouthing is really just blind rhetoric.

The blow fly that causes havoc with fly-strike with sheep is Lucilia cuprina. It arrived in Australia sometime in the early 1900’s. JWH Mules, a woolgrower in South Australia had a ewe that repeatedly got fly struck. In desperation he surgically removed the wrinkle from around the ewe’s tail and solved the problem.

In 1931 Mules had a letter published in the Adelaide Advertiser where he explained his new solution to fly strike. The letter received a lot of opposition. However in 1940 the Joint Blow Fly Committee recognised “that mulesing provided a good degree of fly protection”.  The current procedure was first adopted by the industry in 1947.

Interestingly at about the same time as JWH Mules was experimenting with his repeat offender ewe, a young scientist HB Carter received an assignment from Australian Estates and Mortgage Company as a research officer. His assignment as Dr Carter described it to me when I sat in his garden at his home near Bristol on one balmy English summer’s day in 1994 was to find out why some of the sheep on the Australian Estates properties were prone to fly strike, and others seemed to be fly strike resistant.

This enquiry led Carter to study the histology of the sheep’s skin, beginning the unlocking of the profound knowledge that the ratio of swint and wax glands and primary and secondary fibres is the key to fleeces either attracting blow fly strike or not. This original work of Carter has been pursued by others and most recently by Dr Jim Watts working in the field with Merino stud breeders since the early 1990’s.

Although the literature suggests that Mulesing was first adopted by the industry in 1947, the first I heard of it was when as a young 26 year old farmer in 1967 my father invited the Victorian Department of Agriculture to conduct a mulesing demonstration day on our property, Tottington near St Arnaud. About 20 turned up and I remember one farmer Colin Hosken a fine wool producer and our neighbour, exclaimed after the first incision, “bloody in humane” and left very angry. Colin never ever mulsed but we did from that day onwards.  

When discussing this recently with David Taylor the stud classer at Pooginook, David told me that when he was an overseer on Uardry in the late 1960’s he convinced Mr Jameson, the Manager to let him mules one mob at lamb marking. The results were so impressive that Uardry then adopted mulesing across the whole stud.

Undoubtedly in the 1960’s mulesing was a wonderful innovation, but when I think back everything has changed profoundly since then. 

At Tottington in the 1960’s we would spend weeks prior to shearing digging dags off shitty sheep and cart loads of dags to the Stawell woollen mills. Today on our property Wilderness near Coleraine we only have a few packs of dags. Most sheep today just don’t have dags the way they used to. So why the change?

In the 1960’s we only had a drench called BAN (Blue Stone, Arsenic and Nicotine), pretty useless although the Blue Stone may have assisted with copper deficiency! Worms were an enormous problem until the first of the modern drenches, thiabenzole arrived on the scene.

The only fly strike control was jetting with dieldren, (a pretty dangerous chemical) and later diazinon, safer but not by much!

Today the sheep have changed profoundly, we have a selection of efficient drenches, we know how to control worms, and we understand the importance of good animal nutrition and the importance of a balanced source of minerals, essential for good animal health. On most well run properties sheep are much healthier and productive and consequently have firm faeces throughout the year!

But it is the change in the sheep themselves that is profound. For evidence of this you need only walk along any broker’s sale room and inspect the wool in the boxes. Nearly all the swinty, cross fibre wools that attract fly strike have gone. The wools are longer in fibre length, bright and crimpy and with well aligned fibres and finer than the clip of the 1960’s. This is a mere mirror, as you would expect, of the rams that are presented for sale at any ram sale. Sheep that produce long well aligned deep crimping wools only come from plainer body sheep.

So in the last 50 years the sheep have changed, the wool has changed and our animal husbandry has changed. Yet we continue to convince ourselves that we must use the fly strike method developed at a time of desperation.

Many SRS breeders have become alert to this and successfully eliminated mulesing. Whilst there are many tight skin wrinkly sheep still in Australia and they will continue to need mulesing, I would like to suggest to all my fellow woolgrowers who mules, to do the opposite to what David Taylor did at Uardary in the late 1960’s.Why not try one mob this year and don’t mules. Care must be taken with urine stain around the tail but new chemicals like “Click” can be utilized. It is important for Australian woolgrowers to find a way to help supply our markets with the product they require and thereby enjoy the premium which is already 30+ cents per kilogram and if the current market retracts, may become much higher!

Whilst those of us who perform the mules operation have probably become desensitised with what we are inflicting on our lambs, most of our customers, like our neighbour Colin Hosken back in 1967 are appalled. Failure to supply the market with what it requires will cause substitution to other fibres and may compound our woes down the track with shortage of supply and the consequential impact on price.

Peter Small  is a farmer at Wilderness, Gritjurk.

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4 Responses to PETER SMALL. Mulesing; Have we convinced ourselves of our own rhetoric to the wool industries detriment?

  1. Jan Markby says:

    Could sheep not be selectively bred to eliminate the wrinkles that attracts fly strike? We humans have managed to selectively breed dogs, cats, horses, cattle and other animals to gain differing attributes why not sheep.. I’m aware it would take some years but the quicker the process is started the quicker a goal is reached.

  2. Thanks for that Peter. It was mid 1960s near Morawa in the northern West Australian wheatbelt when I first assisted a farmer with mulesing and it was not a pretty sight, but neither was fly-strike. I had not made the connection with improved drenching. Along with live exports, this is a red-hot animal rights issue.

    The farmer for whom I worked was by no means desensitised and hated the job but believed he was doing the right thing. I was working for him when he tried mulesing for the first time. I like your suggestion that farmers now try not mulesing by way of experiment.

    • Peter Small says:

      Thanks Jerry for your comment. The make and shape of the Australian Merino has changed so profoundly over the last 30 years I am sure if farmers experimented with one mob and not mulsed they might surprise themselves. You are right, non of us enjoyed the job and would celebrate the operation being relegated to the history books.

    • Peter Small says:

      Thanks Jerry for your comment. Yes we all disliked the job and only did it because it was best for the sheep, but I suspect with the change in the make and shape of the modern merino many farmers might surprise themselves if they tried not mulesing one mob this year. I am sure the industry would like to see the operation relegated to the history books.

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