6. Lambs to the Slaughter
LAMBS TO THE SLAUGHTER
Sheep are kept for their wool, skin, meat and milk and on the face of it, you might think that they have escaped the suffering of factory farming because here, free range actually means free range. It’s true that sheep mostly still live in the open, in conditions that are fairly close to their natural environment and have more of a natural diet. They have contact with other sheep without being overcrowded in pens or cages. They have a good life – or do they?
The life of lambs is short and they are often slaughtered at around four months old, although some are killed as young as 10 weeks old...
When young, most are protected and nurtured by their own mothers – something denied to most factory-reared animals. Compared to battery hens or factory-farmed pigs, they have a good life – or do they?
Having watched huntsmen maraud across the countryside on the pretence of protecting sheep from foxes, you'd be forgiven for thinking these must be special creatures indeed. Precious even. But it's all a sham and one million mature sheep out of a flock size of 17.7 million in the UK die each year of cold, hunger, sickness, pregnancy complications or injury. For lambs it is much worse, with four million dying from exposure within a few days of birth. That is about one in four of all new born lambs(13).
Sheep are naturally suited to the dry, rocky land of hill country as they are prone to foot diseases when kept on damp, low-lying land. Of course, this hasn’t stopped the spread of sheep farming across UK lowlands and despite its inherent unsuitability, much of the Midlands has been given over to sheep rearing as has Sussex, Kent, Devon and many other unhilly counties. The life led by these creatures is considerably different to those reared on the uplands, such as in Wales.
Subsidies and science allowed the size of the British flock to increase from about 34 million to 44 million animals in the decade up to 1992. But declining meat sales have seen numbers drop back to 35 million in 2005 – roughly divided between mature breeding sheep and lambs(14).
Sheep farmers depend on subsidies, with about 30 per cent of their income in 2003 coming from the public purse, from you! It amounts to over £300 million from a total income of £1,007 million. Back in 1994, the government said that: "Most hill farmers and many lowland sheep keepers would be incapable of financial survival if subsidies were withdrawn"(15). And that is still the case.
Sheep naturally breed once a year and mostly have just one lamb – occasionally two. The ewe (female sheep) comes into season in the autumn or winter and the five month pregnancy ensures that most lambs are born in the warmer conditions of spring when food is plentiful. But farmers, lured by the higher prices paid for Easter lamb, change this natural breeding cycle so that lambs are born earlier, even as early as December, and many never survive the cold.
They do this by tricking ewes with the use of hormones or by keeping them indoors and controlling the amount of light they receive – the decline in daylight hours being responsible for triggering oestrus.
In lowland areas, artificial insemination is rapidly becoming the norm, with male sheep (rams) being masturbated manually or by having an electrode inserted into their anuses. Female sheep are upended on a cradle and have the semen forcibly inserted into them.
The practice of gathering sheep together in lambing sheds results in lack of hygiene and the spread of disease while giving birth unnaturally early can result in the production of poor quality colostrum – the vital fluid that precedes the milk flow and offers disease protection to the lambs – or not in many cases.
The most profitable part of British sheep farming is lamb and lamb meat – wool coming a distant second and accounting for only between five and 10 per cent of total income. Farmers figure that the more offspring they can produce, the higher their income will be. With the aid of artificial insemination they can induce some ewes to have three or even four lambs a year. No mother can cope with this number, particularly a mother designed by nature to have only one, particularly in freezing weather. The outcome is inevitable – more intensive, indoor rearing.
The life of lambs is short and they are often slaughtered at around four months old, although some are killed as young as 10 weeks old while others are kept for up to 15 months. Despite being capable of living to the age of 15 or so, ewes are slaughtered after only four to eight years. The meat from these mature sheep is called mutton and is less popular than lamb so is mostly used in processed foods or sold abroad.
Sheep have been bred to grow more wool than nature intended. Naturally, they have an outer covering of hair, with the wool making up just a fine undercoat. Domesticated breeds have been ‘improved’ to increase the amount of wool and reduce the growth of coarse hair. Hill breeds, which are left almost entirely to their own devices, have retained much of their coarse coats as protection against the weather while breeds such as Merino have only a fine, soft fleece.
Because of their unnaturally heavy coats, domesticated sheep have to be shorn every year before the weather becomes too hot and uncomfortable and it can be a stressful experience for animals not used to being handled. But there is another source of wool – it is from slaughtered sheep, mostly lambs, and this makes up about 27 per cent of UK wool production.