Anthrax & the Environmental Impact of Sheep Wool Production
Wool is made from the hair of fur-bearing animals, primarily sheep and rabbits, and is such a vital market that it is of equal financial importance to meat and leather production.
Of the 1,006,000,000 sheep in the world today, very few will live beyond 4 years. None of them will exercise any choice about their own lives, and none will be perceived as anything other than a commodity to be exploited and slaughtered, with very few constraints, for their fur, meat, and wool. The largest herds are found in China, Australia, the Russian Federation, New Zealand, South Africa, Uruguay, and Argentina.
China is the world's largest producer and exporter of wool. It concentrates on harvesting wool from sheep after slaughter (slipe wool). They don't bother to shear the sheep while they are alive because the native breed and quality of fleece don't meet the higher standards set by the international Woolmark organization. In some districts, wool is the major source of cash income. China is also the world's leading importer of high-quality raw wool, buying 20% of its needs from Australia. China is a major wool consumer and processor of domestic and imported wool for the Chinese market, as well as for export. Since joining the WTO (the World Trade Organization), China has emerged as the world's largest exporter of clothing and the second largest exporter of textiles.
The highest-grade sheep's wool is gathered from shearing live sheep. The standards are based on the hair quality of Merino sheep, where the earliest shearing produces the finest fleece. Most of this wool comes from Australia, the Russian Federation, and New Zealand, and the main markets are France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK, and the U.S. The primary uses of wool are for apparel, carpets, and decorative textiles; however wool is also used for hats, mattresses, stuffing, toys, insulation, and industrial felt products.
Sheep are raised in enormous herds of many thousands with a low ratio of shepherd to sheep (1:1,000). Newborn lambs die frequently from exposure. A high mortality rate is typical and close supervisory care is impossible. Only minimal preventative care is given, since commercial economic interests require the lowest cost (including the lowest possible cost of labor) and the highest return on investment. The investment for care amounts to little more than vaccinations and dipping, cleaning before periodic shearing and, finally, bathing in the slaughterhouse. Sheep are susceptible to respiratory problems, parasite infestation, fungal conditions, bacterial infections, and are the host for maggots that eat away at their open wounds.
Shearing Live Sheep
Merino sheep constitute over half of the world's sheep population. They are selectively bred with a superior coat and have deeply wrinkled skin, yielding large quantities of wool. The first shearing occurs between 3–11 months for superfine lamb's wool. The second and third shearings follow at 6-month intervals, and with each successive shearing, the diameter of the wool is more coarse and classed at a lower grade.
Shearing is extremely stressful for timid animals like sheep. It is a painstaking process and care must be taken not to cut through the wrinkles of skin, the nipples, the hamstrings, or to break the tails while handling. Yet contract shearers clip between 120–150 sheep a day, getting paid for volume, not time. There is no incentive to lessen the trauma or pain from accidents. Working at a breakneck pace, they wrangle and pin down the anxious animals and can easily nick and slash their bodies. It takes from 6 to 8 weeks for the coat to grow back enough for any protection, and during that period many sheep die from exposure.
In warm weather, sheep are susceptible to an infestation of blowflies that lay their eggs in the moist and soiled folds of fleece. The eggs then hatch into maggots in less than a day and eat very deeply into the skin. Prevention and control can only be carried out with proper management and quick treatment of the herd. In the 1920s, a farmer named Mules developed a barbaric solution that is now used on 95% of sheep in large herds. Instead of maintaining good husbandry and cleanliness, the lambs are collected and tied upside down to long frames by their legs, while a worker moves from one to the next, slicing off the skin around the tail. It is a large wound that the sheep will suffer with for months, and no anesthetics are used. Frequently, maggots will be found embedded near the eyes or hooves as well, and the skin in these areas will also be cut away. Almost immediately, the open wounds are re-infected.
Slipe Wool Production
Many millions of sheep are slaughtered every year for their meat, and every carcass will have its skin removed for three distinct products: wool, fur, and leather. Since the wool is a very important element in the overall commercial value of the sheep, the process of harvesting the wool starts with washing the sheep before they are killed. This washing removes the dirt, urine, and feces that get all over them during transportation to the slaughterhouse. Within seconds of slaughter, the skin is transferred to the fellmongery (a wool processing operation). Often the sheep abattoir has its own wool-processing operation.
The still-warm skin is washed in cold water to lower the temperature by reducing the body heat, and to remove blood from the wool. In subsequent operations the pelt is spun to remove excess moisture, sorted, and sprayed with a chemical depilatory made from sodium sulphide and lime that dissolves the root, making it easy to remove the wool. It is then stored while the chemical takes full effect before the wool itself is harvested. The skins are actually beaten, either by hand with wooden paddles or with a machine beater, to release the strands of hair. What remains must be pulled out so the skin will be completely clear before it is sent on to the tannery to be made into leather. The pulled skins are treated again in a liming, washing, and pickling process so they can be sold as hides.
Anthrax and the Environmental Impact of Sheep Wool Production
Anthrax is a deadly infectious disease of animals that can be transmitted to humans. It is endemic in sheep, as in other hoofed animals, and has been a serious issue for veterinarians, farmers, butchers, tanners, and wool workers. (In the wool trade of the nineteenth century it was called the woolpickers' or ragpickers' disease, and most commonly occurred in the form of either cutaneous or pulmonary anthrax.) It wasn't until the 1960s with improvements in animal vaccines, that widespread use greatly reduced the problem. Outbreaks still occasionally occur, especially in western Asian countries. Disinfecting the sheep with chemicals like orthophosphate pesticides, and using formaldehyde in dips and pour-ons, can be toxic to anyone handling the fleece. During the multiple scouring and washing processes, these polluting substances are carried into the wastewater and represent an additional impact on the environmental burden already a part of the fur, leather, and meat industries (from abattoirs and tanneries).
The Angora rabbit is farmed in highly intensive factory farms and its wool is used to produce very fine yarn for knitwear like sweaters, baby clothes, mittens, as well as for wool-blend textiles and hats. The value of Angora is 50 times that of sheep wool.
These rabbits are kept in semi-darkness because they are albino. Their living conditions, long sets of hutches with wire-grid floors, are very similar to the housing encountered on industrialized mink farms. Units of 200 to 1,000 hybrid does are reared in three or four-story tiers of cages, in buildings with artificial lighting and ventilation. Rabbit farming is a labor-intensive enterprise, requiring a degree of skill and training from the workers, and therefore it has high production costs. UN agencies, like the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), promote rabbit farming as a good industry for underdeveloped countries because rabbits breed quickly and provide inexpensive protein. This applies more to farming rabbits for meat or fur, which are completely distinct businesses. The FAO has spent over 10 years supporting the concept of backyard rabbitries as examples of sustainable development with extensive programs in 10 countries in Africa, South America, and the Caribbean. Most of these projects have been failures. As far as Angora production is concerned, rabbit hair farms are financially highly risky.
France, once the leader in the production of Angora yarn, is no longer able to compete in world markets, in spite of killing 70 million rabbits a year for its meat trade. Italy, which is reported to be the largest consumer of rabbit meat for the table, is in a similar position. Both countries, nonetheless, import a great deal of Angora for textiles and clothing. Today, about 90 percent of production comes from China, followed by Chile and Argentina.
In France, rabbit hair is pulled, not sheared, which is traumatic for the rabbits, producing shock. This technique requires expertise in handling and can take an hour for each animal. Plucking causes considerable pain when the timing is not precise. Outside of France, most rabbits are shorn every 90–100 days, with hand scissors or electric shears. Some rabbits can yield a satisfactory amount of quality hair for 8–10 years, yet the highest quality comes from does at 6–9 months (at which point they are usually killed). In China, with its annual production of 20 million rabbits, they are generally slaughtered quite young, after the second or third clipping. In Asia, 50–70% of the cash return for each animal is gained from the hair; the balance is drawn from the export trade of rabbit meat to Europe.
REALITY CHECK: How Rabbits Live & Die
REALITY CHECK: How to Skin a Rabbit
While the finest quality, lustrous mohair comes from South Africa and the U.S., China controls of over 60% of total goat, camel, and yak wool production, and it leads in the international marketplace. It has over 100 million goats, including Angora goats (mohair) and Kashmir goats (cashmere). Overgrazing is intense and China has a serious problem with desertification, to the point where there is great fear that its goat regions will soon resemble the great dust bowls of the 1930s in the U.S. Goat meat has no cultural history for the Chinese, but it is slowly being accepted as part of the local diet. The double-humped (Bactrian) camel is also raised on the great expanses of the north, along the border with Mongolia. Angora goats, originating in Israel, are not sturdy; in fact they require the most attention of any livestock and are prone to pneumonia. Kashmir goats, on the other hand, are hardy, and the 40 million in the Chinese herds produce the finest and softest quality cashmere.
Historically, mohair, cashmere, and camels' hair were all harvested by the combing or pulling methods. Now, wrangling with the animals and shearing them is much more common. This is easier to accomplish with domesticated goats; camels are more difficult to handle. Yaks cannot be shorn, and the 13 million in China must have their long silky hair plucked.
Husbandry problems in the gathering of wool from goats are somewhat different than on sheep farms since these herds are generally smaller and the ratio of shepherd to flock is better. But with the market for goat meat strong, it is unlikely that they will be allowed to live out their 10–15 year natural life. Goats are now being cloned, and in the future they will probably be shorn for their wool for 3–4 years while it is at its best and then slaughtered quite young, to be replaced with young goats. Iran and Afghanistan also participate in this market but produce a second quality of cashmere and mohair. Cashmere is used in knitwear and woven textiles for apparel. Mohair is popular for scarves and blankets, as well as upholstery fabrics.
The weasel family (ermine, mink, sable, and another 171 species) are all factory farmed and/or trapped for the fur industry. Their hair is in great demand in wool blends, to add glamour. Beaver and muskrat are prized in the manufacture of felt and hats (Canada is the main supplier), and their hair is collected as a part of the fur trapping business.
In South America, there is a high-value market for animals in the llama family (llama, alpaca, vicuna, guanaco), all related to camels. Vicuna and guanaco are actually wild animals and their wool is extremely rare, and when vicuna is available it is extraordinarily expensive. Vicunas are tiny, antelope-sized animals with a coat that is considered the finest fiber in the world. There are only 50,000 guanacos and 125,000 vicunas alive. Llama and alpaca are domestically raised in this high-altitude environment, with alpaca being the most available for wool production. In Peru, there are 4 million alpacas and approximately 3 million llamas. Raw alpaca wool is never exported from South America; it is always spun and woven or knitted locally. Traditionally, the wool of these animals was combed or plucked seasonally, but now it is more often shorn. Attractive because of their rarity, these South American camelids are fashionable to raise and breed among self-styled gentlemen farmers in North America, and they are a developing industry in Israel.
Alternatives to Wool
Alternatives to wool yarn compete very successfully in today's marketplace, as can be seen by the overall 20% reduction in the sheep population. Synthetics like Nylon and Acrylic are sturdier and easier to maintain, and, along with plant-derived sisal, are the fiber of choice for carpeting. Polyester fleece is light and warm and is a popular, and much more practical, wool replacement for outerwear, sweaters, hats, mittens, and blankets. Orlon and Acrylic have many of the same characteristics as expensive wool yarns like angora, cashmere, and mohair. None of these alternatives exploit animals.