Animal Aid

The suffering of farmed sheep

The following statement from a Ruthin, Denbighshire vet, M.W. Allen, quoted in The Times January 6, 2000, speaks volumes about the modern British sheep industry (the 'small furry creature' referred to at the end of the impassioned statement is the fox).

"There are few more pitiful sights on a night call into the hills in January than a small lamb caught in the headlights, hunched up against sleet in a field with no shelter in sight. I find it perverse that, when every year millions of lamb deaths are due to the mind boggling absurdity of lambing in the worst time of year (December to February), to poor hygiene and overstocking in sheds, and to ewes not producing enough good-quality colostrum because they are in poor condition, so much vitriol should be expended in the direction of this small furry creature [the fox]."

Lamb deaths: the shepherd not the fox

In other words, fox predation is not responsible for the loss of so many lambs. Official figures show foxes take less than 1 per cent - and those they do take are likely to be already ailing. The high losses are due to exploitation and neglect by farmers themselves.

Sheep packed in pens at market

Some four million newborn lambs - about one in five of the total - die every year within a few days of birth, mostly from disease, exposure, or malnutrition. (Henderson, Lamb Survival, Farming Press). And about a million adult breeding animals (out of about 17.5 million) also die in the fields annually.

Victims of fierce weather

Farmers often talk contemptuously of sheep looking for any old excuse to drop down dead. In fact sheep are forced to endure floods, storms, blizzards and drought. In addition, they are pressed into producing more lambs at the "wrong" time of year. As a result of these burdens, they suffer endemic lameness, miscarriage, infestation and viral and bacterial infection. Often they will die before a farmer will know that something is wrong.

People see sheep in the driving rain and snow or in scorching heat and think it's all perfectly natural. But wild animal do not stand about in fields in fierce weather - as sheep are forced to do. Wild animals take cover in burrows, in forests, or in nests. There is invariably no shelter for sheep. Nor can they rely upon enough feed, or even sufficient drinking water in the summer months.

Size of the industry

The UK has the highest sheep population in Europe, with a 2003 flock size of 35.7 million. Roughly half were breeding animals and the other half were lambs under one year of age. About 15.8 million were slaughtered in 2003. (Defra, Agriculture In The UK 2003).

Like other branches of livestock farming, the sheep industry has been sucked into a self-defeating spiral in which more traditional farming methods have been abandoned for the short term allure of intensification. This trend has been fuelled by massive public subsidies and compensation packages. About 30% of the sheep farmers' total income of £1007 million is from the taxpayer.


More sheep, fewer shepherds

But while the number of sheep has increased, the number of trained shepherds has not. Among the results is a high incidence of serious foot problems and dirty wool around the tails - the last of which can lead to devastating infestations.

More pregnancies and multiple births

Under natural conditions sheep will reproduce every spring after a five month pregnancy. Ewes are physiologically designed to produce a single lamb with each gestation (twins would naturally be relatively rare). But genetic selection and intensive feeding have created a situation whereby twins and even triplets are commonplace.

Lambing time has also been manipulated. Instead of taking place in spring, between 10% and 15% of the annual lamb 'crop' is now produced between December and the end of February (Government Parliamentary Question 04.07.95). The aim is to get the lambs to market ahead of competition. Within days of their birth, many of the surviving youngsters are turned out to face the winter weather.

Drugs are used to bring the ewes into season as much as six weeks early and to ensure that a flock (or a proportion of it) ovulates all at once. The latter is for the convenience of the farm workers, not the ewes.

Ewes are 'serviced' by a ram or, increasingly, subjected to artificial insemination (AI). AI is an especially invasive procedure for ewes. One development in AI requires surgical intervention. The ewe is up-ended on a rack and the semen inserted directly into her womb. Embryo transfer takes interference in the reproductive process one stage further. Fertilised embryos are 'flushed' out of a 'quality' donor animal and inserted into a lower-value 'recipient'.

Sheep with growth

To obtain semen for AI, or to sample a ram's breeding potential, the farmer masturbates the animal by hand. Alternatively, an electric probe is inserted into the ram's anus and directed downwards so that it bears upon his prostate gland. A button is pushed and an electric shock administered to make the ram ejaculate. "I have often seen the ram off his feet and writhing in agony having had this done," a North Wales veterinary assistant told Animal Aid. (Silence of the Lambs, Animal Aid, 1995.)

Routine mutilations - castration and 'tail-docking'

Shortly after birth, lambs are subjected to two painful mutilations: castration and tail-docking. Males are castrated in order to prevent unplanned breeding (even though many lambs are slaughtered before they reach sexual maturity), and to reduce aggression. It is also believed that castration ensures quicker growth and better carcass quality. The castration technique most commonly used is to restrict blood supply to the testicles through the use of a tight rubber ring, causing them to wither and drop off within a few weeks.

The same method is used with tail docking. A rubber ring is fitted, designed to restrict the blood supply to the lower half of the tail. Farmers perform this mutilation to prevent "fly-strike" or "blow fly", an infestation which occurs in faeces that gathers around the tail. This problem has increased with the higher ratio of sheep to shepherds.

Unless carried out with caution, these mutilations - castration especially - can lead to serious, even fatal injuries. And if performed too soon after birth, the distress suffered by the lambs may be so great that they stop suckling for a few hours. This contributes to high rates of early mortality.


"The health of the British sheep flock is declining... This is true for diseases caused by viruses, bacteria and ecto(skin)parasites."

(Dr Gerald Coles, senior research fellow in veterinary medicine, Bristol University, The Sheep Farmer, March 1995.)

Lambs at market - despite the regulations, lambs as young 
              as two or three days old are frequently seen in livestock markets.

A range of "preventive" drugs for a wide range of external and internal parasites are either injected, poured down the throat, or applied through whole-body immersion of the entire flock.

The government's official agricultural advisory body, the Farm Animal Welfare Council, has said it is concerned that "there are many cases of incorrect and inappropriate treatments" (Farm Animal Welfare Council Report on the Welfare of Sheep, April 1994) of what are often powerful and toxic compounds. Needles and syringes are rarely cleaned or replaced, even after use on dozens or perhaps hundreds of animals. This leads to abscesses and other complications.

A percentage of animals also fall prey to viral diseases, scrapie, mastitis, rotting teeth, fallen womb (prolapse), lameness and blindness.

Sheep dipping is directed against two devastating conditions known as scab and blowflies. The latter more easily takes root when animals get soaked to the skin and mud caked. It can result in maggots eating the sheep alive. Until July 1992, dipping to combat this condition was compulsory. It was undertaken with a solution containing organophosphate pesticides (OPs). Following widespread reports of farmers suffering serious dipping-related illnesses, the Ministry of Agriculture now require that anyone using OPs must first obtain a certificate of competence.

The negative impact of dipping on sheep themselves is rarely discussed, even though the animals are totally immersed in the toxic solution with their heads held under with a broom or crook. An October 1994 article in The Sheep Farmer listed the "uncontrolled nervous signs" that can result from accidental ingestion or the use of the wrong concentration. These included "excessive salivation and tears, frequent urination, vomiting, difficulty in breathing, muscle twitching developing to incoordination, paralysis, collapse and death". Dipping is also associated with an increased risk of bacterial infection.

British sheep, additionally, harbour various "slow virus" diseases (conditions with a long incubation period without symptoms). One of these is scrapie, believed by Government scientists to be one of the likely sources of BSE in cattle - the latter having been fed infected sheep meat.

Dead sheep at the height of the 2001 foot and mouth disaster.

In 2001, more than 6 million farmed animals were killed and burnt or buried to stop the spread of foot and mouth disease, a highly infectious illness that affects sheep, pigs, cattle and goats. The disease was said to have originated on a filthy pig farm. It very quickly spread as animals were transported to markets and slaughterhouses round the country. At the time of the epidemic, livestock markets were suspended for fear of spreading the disease further. These markets have since been re-opened. However, basic biosecurity rules are not being adhered to, which means the risk of another disease epidemic is current and substantial. See Animal Aid's report, A Dirty Business (published May 2004).

Forced adoption

Around 10% of all lambs born in the lowlands (where most of the high tech manipulation of sheep flocks takes place) are from triplet births. Because ewes have just two teats, the "spare" triplet must quickly be found a lactating ewe with an unused teat. If the selected adult doesn't readily accept the young interloper - frequently the case - she will be tethered by a rope, or held by the neck inside what is called an adopter box. These look rather like medieval stocks and allow the orphan free access to the adult's milk. The ewe may remain in this contraption for four or five days.

An alternative is to feed the "spare" by a tube, which is threaded into his or her stomach via the mouth. Some lambs - already distraught at being separated from their mothers - are killed or injured during this process.

Another method is for the shepherd to insert his hand deep into the ewe's vagina and manually "palpitate" it and the cervix for two minutes - thereby persuading the ewe that she has given birth to another lamb. Where a ewe has lost her own lamb, she might be persuaded to take on a "spare" by this method, particularly if that spare is cloaked in the skin of her dead new-born.


Shearing can be stressful and is often carried out with little regard for welfare. For instance, recently shorn animals may be exposed to hot sun at markets without shelter. Shearing of pregnant ewes in the winter is sometimes done to enable more of them to be crowded into housing and may leave them suffering from cold. In December 1999, a National Sheep Association spokesman told The Times (Dec. 8) that winter shearing "is the future of sheep farming. The fact that you take their coats off means they have to eat more to keep warm. You end up with a better meat-to-bone-and-fat ratio."

More than 6 million farmed animals were killed in an attempt 
              to stop the spread of foot and mouth disease.

The idea is that winter-shorn sheep will head for a barn where they'll huddle together and put on body fat. But with muck and urine gathering under foot, they also face, within the sheds, an increased risk of picking up and passing on disease, such as foot rot. But, of course, there won't always be a barn within reach.

The stresses of livestock markets

80% of UK-produced sheep pass through domestic livestock markets prior to slaughter, further fattening, or export. Harsh treatment and hours standing in crowded pens on hard stone floors is the norm during the bartering process. The Welfare of Animals at Markets (Amendment) Order 1993 prohibits the sale of lambs (or goat kids) with unhealed navels. Even so, navels are usually already healed within seven days, and sometimes as quickly as 48 hours. Also, spray products can be purchased to dry out navels rapidly. Hence, lambs as young as two or three days old are frequently seen in markets. Often, they will be with their mothers and sold as a "job lot". But many very young orphans are also bartered and sold for a few pounds. Lambs may be sent for slaughter between the ages of 3 and 10 months.

Live exports of sheep

Although the live export of sheep has dropped from the massive 1993 levels of 1.9 million, around 68,000 were exported in 2003. As has been well documented, sheep endure horrific suffering on long journeys from UK ports to continental destinations.

Lamb in lorry - current EU rules allow sheep to travel for 14 hours 
              without a rest or water.

Current EU rules allow sheep to travel for 14 hours without a rest or water. They must have a rest period of one hour after a 14 hour journey, after which, they may be transported for a further 14 hours. By the time the animals have been unloaded and loaded within an hour, which causes a lot of stress, they will not have a full hours rest off the vehicle. If the destination can be reached within another 2 hours then they may go a full 16 hours. After the second 14 hour journey, if the destination has not been reached, the sheep must be unloaded, given food and water and rested for 24 hours. The journey times can then be repeated and this pattern can be repeated infinitely.

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