The Shearer, Shed Culture and Animal Welfare
The footage that was aired last night from the investigation by PETA has finally lifted the lid on the horrors that occur every day in shearing sheds around Australia. Why hasn’t this been made public before? Because the farmers are held to ransom and too afraid of the consequences if they speak out!
Humane Society International (HSI) Director Verna Simpson said, “The culture of the Australian shearing shed plays an integral role in the welfare of our sheep, yet it rarely rates a mention or is acknowledged in debates on animal welfare.”
The Aussie shearer is the stuff of folklore with a language all of their own and steeped in tradition, tradition that still holds him in a place of authority for many outback farmers. To this day the shearer, more often than not, dictates the rules of the shearing shed.
It is not uncommon for a shearer to warn a producer that if they fail to mule their sheep the shearers will not return to their shed next year. It is not unheard of for a bad tempered shearer to walk out of a shed because the sheep are too difficult or slow to shear. Word also gets out about these particular producers and sheds, making it difficult for the farmer to find shearers in the future. In most cases this results in reluctance on the part of the producer to go against shearer demands, for fear of being left with sheep unshorn.
Of course there are shearers and shed hands who do take pride in their work and good care of the sheep they handle, but unfortunately there is a class of shearer that is more concerned with how many sheep they can get on the tally board in a day and animal welfare plays no part in their agenda. As pay rates are totally dependent on the number of sheep shorn, the tally translates into how much money the shearer will earn.
When dealing with live animals, a system of workers being paid per animal is a dangerous game. While the shearers continue to be paid by the number of sheep they shear, there is little room for positive change. The shearer is driven by money and the status he holds, or hopes to achieve, in the woolshed. Anything that slows him down and hinders the number of sheep he can shear means less money in his pay-packet and as a result, the sheep he shears may suffer if they give him any trouble.
Sheep that slow down the shearing process can suffer the infliction of all kinds of cruelty. Injuries to sheep range from having the blades of the shears driven into the sheep’s neck, severing the jugular, to skulls crushed with the tension knob on the shearer’s handpiece. In some cases sheep’s necks are broken due to being thrown with incredible force down the exit chute. While not an occurrence in every shed, these acts of cruelty are well known but generally not spoken of. Sheep also suffer due to the speed at which they are shorn, with deep cuts, shorn off horn buds, pizzles and teats or even severed hamstrings, injuries that result in the sheep having to be destroyed.
Whether it be a shedhand or a shearer, no formal training is required and in the outback areas of Australia, many are even unaware of the existence of a Code of Practice for welfare of the sheep they handle. The horrors that were aired last night are not a rare occurrence but happen in sheds across Australia every day.
The industry needs to address this and the following must be in included when considering solutions:
- Competent sheep handlers that are aware of and understand the Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals
- Training in the welfare of sheep for handlers, shed hands and shearers
- Training of any person that is involved in the carrying out of surgical procedures on sheep
- Address the culture that exists in the wool industry amongst handlers and shearers and engage them in bringing about change to the way sheep are perceived and ultimately handled
- Encourage producers to have in place a management program for shearing that stipulates the conditions that are acceptable in their shearing sheds, the manner in which sheep are to be handled, and to have a contract in place to avoid the issues that currently arise when shearers try to exert pressure on producers to carry out certain procedures or treat sheep inhumanely
- Piece work system needs to be abolished
Ms Simpson said that, “If the Ag Gag laws come into place these issues would never surface and this shocking treatment would continue unabated. Interestingly many farmers are as against the proposed Ag Gag laws as we are. There is not a farmer in Australia who would condone the treatment we witnessed in the footage released last night. The majority of farmers take their duty of care very seriously. This is their livestock and dead sheep do not produce wool.”
Hopefully the cruelty that has been exposed will put a spotlight on what has been a dirty little secret and start to bring change to an industry that over the years has lost its way,” Ms Simpson concluded.