The suffering of farmed sheep

People see sheep in the driving rain and snow or in scorching heat and think it’s all perfectly natural.

But wild animals do not stand about in fields in fierce weather as sheep are forced to do; they take cover but there is invariably no shelter for sheep. Nor can they rely upon enough feed, or even sufficient drinking water.

sheep in snow

In addition, ewes are forced into producing more lambs at the ‘wrong’ time of year. Every year some four million newborn lambs – about one in five of the total – die within a few days of birth, mostly from disease, exposure or malnutrition. Contrary to what some farmers say (in an attempt to justify the barbarity of fox hunting), fox predation is not responsible for the loss of so many lambs. Official figures show that foxes take less than one per cent and those they do take are likely to be already ailing. The high losses are due to neglect by farmers, working in an industry that exploits animals at every stage.

As a result of the burdens put on sheep, they suffer endemic lameness, miscarriage, infestation and infection. Each year, around one in 20 adult sheep die of cold, starvation, sickness, pregnancy complications or injury before they can be slaughtered. Often, they will die before a farmer even realises anything is wrong. Lambs who do survive are usually killed for food at around four months old.

Size of the industry

The UK has one of the largest sheep flocks in Europe with around 22 million animals, approximately 14 million of whom are slaughtered each year.

More pregnancies and multiple births

Under natural conditions sheep will give birth 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 not just commonplace but the norm, with around 85 per cent of sheep pregnancies now resulting in multiple lambs.

Whilst most lambs are born in the spring, many farmers are choosing to lamb during the winter months to ensure their animals are big enough to slaughter for the lucrative ‘spring lamb’ market around Easter. They use invasive techniques, such as drugs and hormone implants, to manipulate the sheep breeding cycle in pursuit of higher profits. Being born in winter obviously puts lambs at greater risk of exposure, but earlier pregnancies also mean unborn lambs may be at greater risk from insect-borne diseases during the summer, such as Schmallenberg virus, which can cause deformities and miscarriages.

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’.

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. This can often cause severe pain.

Routine mutilations

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. If the ring is applied when the lamb is less than seven days old, there is no legal requirement to use anaesthetic.

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 that occurs in faeces that gathers around the tail.

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.


A range of ‘preventive’ drugs for a wide range of external and internal parasites can be injected, poured down the throat, or applied through whole-body immersion of the entire flock. Needles and syringes are rarely cleaned or replaced, even after use on dozens or perhaps hundreds of animals. This can lead 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 caked in mud. It can result in maggots eating the sheep alive. Until 1989, dipping to combat this condition was compulsory and was undertaken with a solution containing organophosphate pesticides (OPs). Due to widespread reports of farmers suffering serious neurological illnesses as a result of using OPs, it is now a legal requirement that anyone using them 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. Accidental ingestion of dip by sheep can cause 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.

In 2001, more than 6 million farmed animals, including 4.9 million sheep, 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 around the country. At the time of the epidemic, livestock markets were suspended for fear of spreading the disease further, but were later re-opened. A further, but much smaller, outbreak of foot and mouth disease occurred in 2007 linked to an animal disease laboratory in Surrey. Hundreds of animals were killed in order to prevent the disease from spreading.

Forced adoption

Around 20 per cent of all lambs born in the lowlands 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 – which is 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. The process of shearing itself often results in injuries to sheep and can help to spread diseases between animals, especially those affecting the skin.

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. 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.

Livestock markets

Most UK-raised 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. Under current welfare regulations, lambs with unhealed navels should not be transported, and therefore not taken to market. 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

Around 390,000 sheep are exported live each year from the UK, constituting the vast majority of our farmed animal live exports. As has been well documented, sheep endure horrific suffering on long journeys from UK ports to continental destinations. In September 2012 live exports were temporarily suspended from the Port of Ramsgate following the deaths of more than 40 sheep in an incident there.

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. 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 before they can be transported again. During transport, the amount of space per animal may be as little as 2,000cm2 each – equivalent to just over three sheets of A4 paper.

Go Veganlamb

Killing an animal for food can never be regarded as humane. Animals’ lives are as important to them as ours are to us and none go to the knife willingly. Choosing organic or free-range over factory farmed meat, milk or eggs, continues to cause pain and suffering. The only viable solution to end animal suffering is to adopt an animal-free diet.

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