SHEEP AND LAMBS
Yarns and guidelines
Spinning plant fibres
NOTE ON ACRYLICS
The short and hazardous life of sheep
farmers in the UK get a poor return for wool, and there are now only
two fleece scouring plants operating in the UK. In fact there has been over-supply
in the wool market for years. The
main outlets for British wool are carpets, clothing and insulation - with
knitting yarn being a very minor and specialist business. And in February 2020 the global wool market
collapsed because of the coronovirus, meaning that even that relatively small income stopped. For many years it has
been the case that the sheep you see in the fields
and hills don't 'give' us wool, but are destined for the meat trade. Also,
14 million sheepskins are produced annually
in the UK. (BBC Farming Today 03/04/17)
There are a tiny number of tiny farms which keep sheep mainly for the wool, but looking into this I have found that their claim is merely that their special wool is 'shorn from live sheep who are free to return to the fields' - which is actually no different from the norm. Most fleeces are shorn from live sheep, whilst a lesser amount (less than 30%) is reclaimed from slaughterhouses. The main product of sheep farming is lambs for 'the table', and the only adult sheep you will see in the fields are kept for breeding those lambs.
December 2014 Animal Aid published a report
The Uncounted Dead,
which exposes the cruelty and neglect whereby an estimated 43 million
farm animals die of disease, neglect, fire, flood, adverse weather
and traffic accidents. In the UK, farmers need only to report deaths
from 'notifiable' diseases, so precise casualty figures are not known.
But it is clear that many farms are overcrowded, lacking shelter,
prone to flooding, barns are poorly built and wired, and road transport is
a hazardous business.
Like many types of animal farming in the UK, sheep farming is essentially unsustainable - in other words, to keep it going in its present form it needs a large input of government and European subsidies (see Environment page).
payments there wouldn't be many farmers who are covering the costs of production"
Sheep farmer in Mid Wales speaking in BBC Farming Today 29/09/2016)
increased after World War II, encouraging farmers to produce more meat,
and encouraging us to eat more meat. All the
practices described here are subsidised by public money.
Because of the subsidies, there was an astonishing 500% increase in the number of
sheep livestock in the UK during the 20th
century (UK Data Archive, 2007-2008. Study
6363: Sustainability of Hill Farming. Retrieved October 31, 2012 –
courtesy of Wikipedia).
It was back in the 15th and 16th
centuries that wool was
England's gold mine. Grazing sheep became a normal part of the
landscape, and this has more or less continued to the present day. Until just a year or two
ago, the UK had the
highest sheep population in Europe.
This downward trend is explained by the fact that the EU farm subsidies per head of livestock were withdrawn in 2004. They were replaced by the 'single farm payment', which relates to the acreage of the farm rather than the number of animals kept, with a smaller proportion being also dependent on the farm's "public good", in terms of food production and environmental improvements. This significant change aimed to lessen the devastating effects of overgrazing during the previous decades, and it has certainly had the effect of slightly diminishing the sheep population. But aside from subsidies (which are soon to change under Brexit and the new Agriculture Bill) the essential income from sheep farming is its annual cash crop.
The main income from
sheep farming today (apart from subsidies - see the environment page) is the
sale of lambs. Once a sheep has reached its peak
production, or in the case of lambs for the Easter lamb market (and later in December for the tail-end of the lamb market at Christmas) it will be
slaughtered. In any one year, roughly half of the sheep and lamb population will be
slaughtered and replaced. Technically, a lamb has to be less than one year old.
are slaughtered at 10 weeks to 6 months,
though some may be 14 months old" (stretching the definition a little).
Even producers who keep small flocks for the speciality wool market, usuallly have to breed lambs each year to survive economically. I recently read in a knitting magazine of a woman in the Highlands who aimed at some point in the future to be able to keep her small flock without selling lambs, but this would need to be heavily subsidised by other income. Please contact me with details if you know of a sheep wool producer who does not sell lambs, and I will mention it here if the owner agrees. Keeping sheep just for wool would be virtually impossible on a commercial scale, though there may be a very few individuals who have another income and can leave the sheep to live out their natural lives. In fact, since launching this site, just one person has contacted me to say he and his wife keep a small number of pet sheep and use the wool. Such wool does not make it to our local wool shops and even if we could afford to buy it there wouldn't be enough to go round.
There are just two 'exceptions that prove the rule' in the UK, that I know of: Speciality 'slaughter free' knitting wool
is available from Izzy Lane,
a North Yorkshire company which produces cruelty-free wool
for the high-end fashion market, and has recently added a small collection of knitting yarn to their catalogue
You can also buy wool in the form of
fleece from the Farm Animal Sanctuary in
Worcestershire which you have to spin yourself or send for spinning,
but which is certainly cruelty free and is affordable. All this
bears out the fact that 'cruelty free wool' is not readily available to most knitters.
"(the owner) seems remarkably sanguine about the minimal profitability of her wool products. She is clear that it would not be remotely viable if they did not breed and sell the lambs for meat. Lambs can currently reach as much as £120...." (the price of lambs fluctuates greatly at market)Knitting magazine November 2013 (interview with smallholder producing wool for farmers markets and for sale online).
Sheep are farmed in hills (e.g. Wales, Peak District, North Yorkshire...), in uplands, or in the lowlands (e.g. East Anglia, East Yorkshire, Devon....) and this involves different breeds of sheep, often very localised. Also in many areas sheep are bred in the hills and fattened for slaughter in more hospitable lower lying fields. Hence “sheep can be frequently transported throughout their lives and are often sold via livestock markets.” (RSPCA – see http://www.rspca.org.uk/allaboutanimals/farm/sheep/farming)
sheep can legally be transported in a single lorry and as we know sheep may be transported several times during their lives.
The Animal Aid Report mentioned above details a representative list of accidents over recent years, of which these are examples:
The report also details several incidents within the past three years where large numbers of sheep have died in floods, from Dumfries and Galloway (“dozens”) to Spurn Point in East Yorkshire (30) to Clwyd where 230 sheep perished in a flood near Wrexham.
Sheep are adapted to dry rocky ground, and so those kept in low lying areas are likely to suffer from foot diseases. In today's large flocks, at least 10% of sheep suffer chronic lameness, parasite infestation and viral and bacterial infections of the feet. I often walk in sheep farming parts of the Peak District where a limping sheep is a common sight. Scald and footrot, both bacterial infections, are the main causes of lameness. It's the inevitable consequence of being kept in England's green and pleasant (therefore wet) land, often in fields smattered with their own excrement; such land is 'sheep sick' ground, and of course it encourages disease. Wild herd animals move around and are rarely subject to such diseases.Sheep farming is basically a mono-culture and the average size of flocks kept in hill farming is around 600 sheep whereas upland farms and lower lying farms may have many more and often more than 1,000.
"LAMENESS remains one of the most important welfare issues affecting the sheep industry. Recent estimates suggest that over 80 per cent of flocks contain lame sheep, with a prevalence in some flocks of over 9 per cent for footrot and over 15 per cent for scald” (Journal of the British Veterinary Association In Practice, no. 26, 2004 http://inpractice.bmj.com/content/26/2/58.abstract
Another hazard for sheep is foot-and-mouth disease (which can also affect pigs and cattle). It causes fever, lameness and general weakness and is highly contagious though rarely fatal. It cannot be cured but usually runs its course within two or three weeks. However, in the UK infected animals are “culled” in order to prevent others from being infected, as this would cause economic problems for the farmers (in other words, an outbreak would cause the animals to lose body weight, i.e. meat, as well as deterring consumers who would be put off by the news stories). Some readers may remember the 2001 outbreak when 3 million sheep were slaughtered in the UK to try to stop the disease spreading. This was presented in the media as tragedy for the sheep, but of course it was really a tragedy for the farmer. From the sheep's point of view, many times this number go to slaughter in the normal course of one year. Over £1 billion was paid to farmers in compensation. https://www.nao.org.uk/press-releases/the-2001-outbreak-of-foot-and-mouth-disease-2/
Here is another media headline, this time showing the threat of hypothermia and starvation to sheep kept outside in the UK with no shelter:
“Farm leaders are in emergency talks amid fears that thousands of sheep have perished in snow drifts.
“It comes as companies responsible for collecting fallen stock
are being asked to offer bulk discounts for the disposal of dead
As well as weather conditions,
the toll of sheer neglect is huge, with cases that come to court
representing only the tip of the iceberg. The example detailed in the Animal Aid Report from the
countryside near where I live (South Pennines) is of a case of 50 dead
sheep being found alongside live animals on a Derbyshire farm.
Other common diseases which affect sheep and lambs
I have deleted this paragraph but if you'd like an unpleasant read you may do an internet search for the sheep diseases Orf and Johne's disease.
thing to note about lambing is that it does not take place in its natural
season, but at an earlier time dictated by the farmer and very much
arranged round the date of Easter! This is because it is apparently
traditional to eat lamb at Easter time (see below
for more details). Sheep have two teats and in
conditions they would have just one lamb. However, many years of
selective breeding and intensive feeding have resulted in sheep which
often produce two or even three lambs, which the farmer then tries to
keep alive, usually by keeping them with others in pens with
artificial teats around the sides. They would be weaned in the pens
onto dried pellets, and then put out to grass to be 'finished', so they
would never have known their mother. For the majority of mother sheep,
who are able to raise their own lambs, there are many hazards of
nursing and here I
shall mention just one.
“Mastitis in ewes is a cause of
significant financial loss to the industry and severely jeopodizes
the welfare of affected sheep and their lambs.”
Mastitis is a bacterial infection of the teat canal, most often during the first few weeks of lactation, and it's very painful. Faecal infection, as with many other farm animal diseases, is usually the cause.
It's not surprising, given the harsh conditions in which sheep are raised, that lambing is a hazardous time for both sheep and lambs. The care of the shepherd for the sheep and lambs is legendary and is still commonly cited, not least in churches, though of course animals in more favourable conditions, born in their due season, with ample clean grazing and shelter, and without intense breeding, would not necessarily need intensive care. And the mortality statistics show that not all farmers are able to give that care. Lambs are a cash crop after all, worthy of care only as far as they promise good market value.
I am sure that all farmers if challenged with neglecting their animals would strongly deny the accusation and assure us of the devoted care they give to them. In their own lights I expect most of the farmers are being truthful, though to those of us who choose not to use their products, the word “care” seems a misnomer when ultimately the worst will happen to the animals. But aside from such issues, there is always 'human nature' to contend with and wherever people are engaged in any business there are always those who are neither honest nor compassionate. Again and again undercover investigations find the most appalling abuse of farm animals and this has included both the RSPCA Freedom Foods and the Red Tractor assurance scheme (which is after all an organisation made up basically from farmers and the food industry) see for instance http://www.hillside.org.uk/HillsideInvestigationFootage.htm.
The mortality rate of lambs is 18 % in the lowlands and even more in the hills (Radio 4 'Farming Today' 10 Feb 2018).
In the photo, tail docking is also illustrated. The mature sheep you see in the fields are either females or castrated males. In most herds they will all have had their potentially long tails removed by 'docking' during the first weeks of life. Sometimes you can see the remains of lambs' body parts in the fields. However lambs who are destined for slaughter before reaching sexual maturity are not usually castrated. The castrated adult males are often used to trigger oestrus prior to putting the 'entire' tups in with the female sheep.
Elastration is the most common method of castration and tail docking in the UK. For castration, a thick rubber ring is placed around the neck of the scrotum and this causes it to wither within four to six weeks. The procedure is usually done in the first week of life. Scottish Government recommendations state:
“Account should be taken not only of the pain and distress
caused by castration but also the stress imposed by gathering and
handling and the potential risk of infection. For very young lambs
gathered in large groups there is real risk of mismothering which may
lead ultimately to starvation and death.”
'Mismothering' is the distress of tail docking and castration, both carried out at the same time, which may prevent the lambs from suckling - life threatening in the early days.
These are recommendations only and the law itself merely states that it is illegal to castrate a lamb over the age of three months without anaesthetic.
Tail docking is routinely done to lambs, also with a
rubber ring, and is carried out in order to
reduce the build-up of faeces around the anus, which would encourage
flystrike, a serious parasitic disease.
A report by the former Farm Animal Welfare Council in 2008
that “in the
absence of effective pain relief, lambs experience
considerable pain in the period following application of the ring.”
They also found that the ring causes considerable pain and distress
to the lamb for up to a month after the initial procedure.
(The independent Farm Animal Welfare Council has since been replaced by the government's Farm
strike is a major welfare concern and an important
cause of ill thrift and death in affected animals. Last year,
first cases were reported throughout the UK at the beginning of May,
and the incidence remained high during the summer. Problems were
compounded by wet weather, which made chemical preventive management
This is not carried out in the UK
but in Australia where
Merino sheep are extensively farmed. Flystrike is a particular hazard
for Merino sheep because they have been bred to have many folds of
flesh in order to produce their very wooly fleeces. Mulesing is the practice
of actually removing skin from the area around the anus, usually
without pain relief or antiseptics, in order to lessen the risk of
flystrike. Mulesing is actually a surgical procedure though it is
carried out by unqualified hands. The sheep is tied down on its back
whilst flesh is carved out from its backside with clippers or large
scissors. No anaesthetic is used and the bleeding wound is left
Animal rights groups, noteably
have campaigned against mulesing, achieving a ban on Merino wool by,
for instance, John Lewis in 2009 and New Look in 2012 (though I doubt whether these agreements still hold). New Zealand
has adopted a voluntary (therefore ineffective) ban
on mulesing but Australia seems to have reneged on a promise to
outlaw it. Thousands
of tonnes of wool are imported into the UK from Australia and it is still the main source of Merino wool sold in the UK.
Sheep dipping to reduce mite infestation of the skin was compulsory until 1989, since when infestations of sheep scab have been rampant in the UK. Sheep scab (a mite infestation of the skin) causes great distress to the animal and can be fatal. Both the disease and the prophylaxis are severe.
The Sheep Dip Sufferers
Support Group says that
more than 20,000 farmers suffered ill health and neurological diseases due to organophosphates when dipping
was compulsory, with a number committing suicide.
To combat sheep scab, regulations
that sheep must be immersed for one whole minute in the toxic mix,
with their heads dunked twice during that period. The dip is
toxic to plants and animals so there are problems both with the
disposing of the liquids and with contamination of the land and
waterways from the sheep themselves after dipping.
See the Environment page for more on sheep dip.
story goes that the women who first
made those beautiful Shetland shawls (so fine they could be drawn
through a wedding ring!) used to pull the wool from the sheep, and in
this way produce an extremely fine yarn. That would be before
Shetland wool went global - these days there's not much time for
pulling wool. Selective breeding has produced sheep with fleeces
which cannot be shed naturally over
the summer months, and this leaves them at risk of heat exhaustion.
Conversely, in our increasingly extreme and unpredictable weather, the
are also at risk from cold weather after
typically takes place once a year, at the beginning of the summer
when the sheep have just been through the stresses of pregnancy and
lactation. There is no doubt that rough handling is necessary. We can
only imagine the feelings of the sheep, who evolved to suppress
signs of pain or fear so as not to attract predators. This we interpret
as indifference or compliance. Unbelievably, there are
people who want sheep
shearing to become an Olympic sport.
Since writing the above, I've come across information about Easy Care Sheep http://www.easycaresheep.com/. "Easy Care is a revolutionary breed of sheep which requires minimal shepherding and veterinary care, sheds its wool in the summer, does not need shearing and yet offers excellent meat yields and lambing ratios. The breed is now well established in Britain and abroad and is proving extremely popular and successful with breeders in today's farming environment".
That certainly shows the farmers' priorities.
In fact, the fleece is reckoned by many sheep farmers to be an expense rather than a source of profit or side benefit, and another breed, the 'Wiltshire Horn', is coming to the fore as a tasty cut of lamb with the advantage of shedding its fleece naturally. Farmers are clear that British wool will never be able to compete with the superior wool that comes from merino sheep in other countries.
have a life span similar to that of dogs and can live up to 17
years, but farmed sheep are usually slaughtered when they have
reached their peak market value, which means before they reach six
years old. The majority of sheep slaughtered each year are lambs
(under one year old) and the majority of those will go to the Halal market.
Animals must by law be stunned before slaughter in the UK except those under religious slaughter. Those killed by religious slaughter may often be killed in the same slaughterhouses but without the initial stunning. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/may/05/vet-condemns-slaughter-farm-animals.27% of sheep in the UK are slaughtered without stunning (BBC Radio 4 Farming Today 12/04.18).
During 2014, the charity Animal Aid carried out undercover filming in
10 slaughterhouses and in 9 out of the 10 they filmed criminal welfare
breeches. Only the last filming in December hit the mainstream media in
January 2015, and perhaps only then, regretably, because it produces
halal meat. You may not want to click on the link below because it
shows horrific and sadistic cruelty which potentially could occur in any
In UK slaughterhouses, where 'humane slaughter' is practiced, sheep have to wait immobilised in a queue where they can hear and smell what is ahead. Then they enter the stunning pen, where electric prongs are applied on either side of their head, and a current passed through the brain, rendering the animal temporarily unconscious if all goes 'well'. They then have their throats cut and are immediately hoisted up and suspended by a back leg to be passed along the overhead line where bleeding to death will take place during the next few minutes (again, if all goes 'well'). The process of hoisting the animal before death is the same for cattle and is a legal requirement in the UK and most western countries because of the need to avoid cross contamination from blood.
Time and time again, undercover investigations show how the process can go horribly wrong, given that it is carried out away from public view and mostly away from official scrutiny. Sometimes the smaller slaughterhouses are the worst, as with this investigation by the Hillside Animal Sanctuary, published in a mainstream newspaper in February 2015:
Animal rights organisations campaigned for years to
make CCTV cameras compulsory in UK slaughterhouses. The campaign
has been strenuously fought and fought against - which in itself speaks
volumes of the industry. Only in 2015 were there glimmerings of
possible success and finally in 2017 legislation was passed to install CCTV in slaughterhouses. However full implementation is still awaited.
Live export of sheep and cattle is still going on the the UK (2020) but a change of legislation after 'Brexit'
could perhaps put a halt to it.
Of course - in addition to the cruelty of long journeys in cramped trucks - when the animals reach their destination, they
will be in a country which would most probably have much worse welfare standards than in the UK. For instance, a big new market for lamb
exports to Saudi Arabia opened in 2018 and it is very likely that the lambs will not be stunned before being slaughtered.
In addition to buying local produce when possible, many people search out organic products, including wool. In the UK, only produce certified by the Soil Association can be called 'organic'. The Soil Association is proud of its animal welfare standards:
The Soil Association promises that in organic farming there is
Lots of outdoor space and fresh air
two criteria here are not different from non-organic
sheep farms, and as for the third, organic and non-organic go to the
slaughterhouses. So from the sheep's point of view there's not much
difference between organic and non-organic farms.
On the Environment page is a 16th century lament for the displacement of traditional mixed farming by sheep farming. Here is an extract from a poem from mid 20th century Wales:
The Welsh Hill Country
Too far for you to see
The fluke and foot-rot and the fat maggot
Gnawing the skin from the small bones,
The sheep are grazing at Bwlch-y-Fedwen,
Arranged romantically in the usual manner
On a bleak background of bald stone.
Too far for you to see ...........
R.S Thomas, 1913-2000
Welsh poet and Anglican parish priest.
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