Sheep are raised in the UK to produce meat (lamb and mutton) and for their wool and milk.
|Animal||Natural lifespan (on average)||Age at which they are typically killed|
|Lamb||12 years||4-6 months|
|Breeding Ewes*||12 years||4-6 years|
|Breeding Rams*||12 years||5 years|
*Sheep used for breeding are killed for cheap meat products at an older age, usually when they are past their breeding ‘prime’.
Ewes (female sheep) give birth to their young in the spring when the weather is at its mildest and there is plenty of grass.
Ewes are either ‘serviced’ by a ram (male sheep) or subjected to artificial insemination. In this instance, semen is collected from the ram using an electric probe. The ewes are then caught and held in place (usually by strapping them to a rack) before the semen is inserted into them. This is a painful and distressing procedure for both the ewe and the ram.
Between 2 to 6 million lambs die each year at birth or a few days old. [i] This is caused by disease, exposure, or malnutrition.
Naturally, ewes would give birth to a single lamb. However, through human manipulation, many sheep are now selectively breed to produce two or three lambs, which is intended to increase the industry’s profitability.
These multiple births often lead farmers to introduce force adoption. As ewes have just two teats, the third triplet must be quickly found a ewe from whom they can feed. There can be issues with the ewe accepting the extra lamb, in which case they can be force fed (through a tube into their stomach), bottle fed or sent to market to be sold.
In the past sheep would shed their coats naturally and farmers would collect their wool for use. As sheep have become more domesticated and selectively breed, they have been unable to moult naturally and now must be sheared so that they don’t overheat. Shearing also allows the farmers to collect more wool to sell. Sheep are usually sheared in the early summer months or, on occasions, before being housed in the winter.
The shearing process involves holding down the sheep on a wooden board outside or gathering them indoors in pens. This is a stressful procedure for these fearful sensitive animals and often leads to injury and much distress.
Shearers are usually paid by the volume of wool they collect, rather than by the hour. This encourages fast work and little regard for the welfare of the sheep. As PETA’s undercover footage shows, sheep are often cut in the process and sown together using a needle and thread – with no pain relief.
Today, the UK is the 7th largest producer of wool globally. A sheep’s wool also produces a waxy substance called ‘lanolin’ which is used in many household and cosmetic products.
Most sheep in the UK are farmed outdoors and exposed to extreme weather conditions with little or no shelter. Only around 1% are reared in industrial systems. Housing is generally only used during the lambing season and for the fattening of lambs and milking sheep.
Housing the ewes at this late stage in their pregnancy is stressful as they would naturally prefer isolation prior to giving birth. The frustration and anxiety of their confinement and reduction in feeding often causes them to pull at their wool and bite their pens.
Disease and ailments
As Dr Gerald Coles, a senior researcher in veterinary medicine at Bristol University, states: ‘health is declining among the UK sheep flock’.
Many types of drugs are injected and fed to sheep in order to help prevent and manage the wide range of diseases currently affecting them. These diseases include scald, footrot, blowfly strike, scrapie, mastitis, lameness and even blindness.
The majority of UK sheep farms experience some lameness in their flocks. Many sheep develop this crippling condition from footrot and scald. These diseases can be tackled through vaccination or treatments, but due to its contagious nature, many farmers will kill large numbers of sheep if they do not respond to treatment.
Ewes may also suffer from mastitis, a painful infection that causes the udder to harden and inflame. Again, sheep can be killed if they do not respond well to the treatment as their bodies are now considered valueless by the industry.
Blowfly strike is a problem affecting sheep during the warmer months. This usually occurs at their rear (where conditions are moist). Here the sheep are susceptible to blowflies whose maggots eat their flesh. An estimate of 12,000 sheep die every year due to blowfly. [ii] Some farmers will dock the tails of the lambs as a preventative measure – see below tail docking.
These are just some examples of the diseases experienced by sheep within the animal agriculture industry.
Sheep are transported long distances that cause them much stress, injury, and occasionally death. They frequently suffer from heat stroke, dehydration and overcrowding. In September 2012, 40 sheep were killed after inspection at Ramsgate Port in Kent.
Vets who examined the animals found that one had a broken leg, another was sick and more than 40 were severely lame. The RSPCA said at the time that none of the animals could reach their drink holders in the vehicle.
This incident led to the suspension of live exports from UK ports. Unfortunately this practice has now resumed.
Current laws in the UK allow sheep to be transported for up to 14 hours. A rest period for food and water must then be given before the journey can resume for a further 14 hours. [iii]
Before being transported to slaughter, the majority of sheep are taken to livestock markets. This involves long periods of standing in uncomfortable and crowded conditions.
Over 12 million sheep are slaughtered in the UK each year. [iv] Most lambs are slaughtered within the first year of their lives, between four to six months of age. Some may get to live for around 14 months. [v] The flesh from these lambs is known as ‘hogget’. After 1.5 years their meat is called ‘mutton’.
In the UK, the majority of sheep are stunned prior to being killed. The two methods used are penetrating captive bolt or electrical:
This is the most widely used method: an electrical current is passed through the animal’s brain via a large pair of tongs, causing temporary loss of consciousness.
Electrical stunning is not always successful and sheep can regain consciousness before their throats are slit. They struggle for several seconds before they bleed out.
Viva!’s undercover video captured this happening in one British slaughterhouse:
Penetrate captive bolt
A gun fires a metal bolt into the brain of the animal causing the animal to lose consciousness.