Just like the cattle of New Zealand, sheep are a common sight on the road-side, but lives of individuals are frequently overlooked. Just like cattle, they have their own animal rights issues.
At birth, male lambs suffer the general mutilation of castration that most farm animals serve. While this decreases some aggression and sterilizes them, it is performed to make management easier for the farmer, yet it is a painful procedure for the lamb. Lambs, unlike other animals, endure a specific castration technique – the cryptorchid procedure – which instead of removing the testicles, forces them up inside the body. This places the testicles at body temperature, making the lamb infertile, but providing the benefits of growth hormones.
Lambs, of any gender, also have their tale docked. This is usually done in the second week after birth, using a constricting rubber ring that cuts off blood supply and essentially “kills” the tail until it drops off. No pain relief is given to the lamb, resulting in considerable stress for them.
Two weeks to three months after birth, lambs are ‘weaned’ from their mothers. Not only are the lambs moved from milk onto solids, like when a child is weaned, but they are completely removed from their mothers and confined to a different paddock. Lambs would naturally stay with their mother for a whole year, and removing them this early is stressful, for mother and child alike. The motive behind lambing is to increase a farmers profit; lambs convert feed to weight better than ewes convert feed to milk. This also allows farmers to farm more sheep on their land.
At 4 to 6 months of age, lambs are sent to slaughter. They are herded onto trucks, and transported across the country. For the unfortunate few, this journey involves a boat ride across the strait. From the farm to the freezing works can take up to several, terrifying days for the lambs. At the freezing works, the lambs are rendered unconscious through the use of a penetrating captive bolt, percussive stunning or electrical stunning. These methods do not always work, leaving the lamb in agony until it can be successfully knocked out. After the lamb is unconscious, it is killed by either cutting through the chest, or a slash across the neck for halal slaughters. Again, these methods don’t guarantee a successful, pain-free death for the lamb.
Every year, over 20 million lambs are slaughtered in this method, as well as any ewes that are barren, have reduced fertility, or are over 6 years old. A sheep’s natural lifespan is 10 years.
For the sheep that are kept for wool, they go through the experience of shearing every year. The stress of mustering is just the start to the stress the sheep will endure. At the shearing shed, the sheep are separated from the herd they rely on for protection. Accosted by a farmer that treats shearing as a sport, the sheep is rushed through the shearing process, often resulting in many bruises and widespread skin injuries to the sheep. Throughout the whole process, the sheep suffers a high level of stress. They are treated as objects, rather than beings, during this rough and harmful process.
Merino sheep must also suffer through a procedure called mulesing. This consists of the skin at the tail area being removed using hand shears, without any anesthetic. The purpose is to create scar tissue that stops wool growth, in an attempt to reduce fly strike. Mulesing is extremely painful.
Sheep are highly social animals, naturally forming tight herds. In a farming situation, with many sheep confined to a paddock, as well as constant movement and mustering, this prevents herd bonds from forming. This means a flock is constantly attempting to establish order, and constantly stressed. Wool sheep are continually culled, and follow the same slaughter methods, in attempts to improve flock quality. Sheep will never live to their natural lifespan of 10 years.