Staying warm and kind is easy! Leave products made from wool for the sheep, and stay warm and fuzzy with items made from these sheep and planet-friendly options.
Like most folks, the fact sheep require shearing each year was something I never questioned. Like so many other parts of animal agriculture, I took it at face value and didn't give it a second thought.
It is indeed, true; most sheep do require shearing. Without annual shearing, they would suffer tremendously. But why? How did sheep survive without humans if that was the case? What cruel trick of evolution resulted in these animals becoming dependent on humans to provide them with an annual haircut for them to survive? When our famous friend "Chris the Sheep" was found in 2015, carrying over 40kg of wool, it was indeed a miracle he had survived. It made us ask - how did sheep become like this?
The answer is, this was not how sheep naturally evolved; nature never intended an animal to be completely at the mercy of another for their survival. At their origins, sheep shed most of their wool each year in the warmer months. Even today, many breeds raised for meat still shed their wool. Breeds raised for their wool no longer shed, purely because humans have selectively bred them for their continual, year-round wool growth, enabling people to harvest their fleece for human use.
Furthermore, humans have bred sheep to not only require shearing but in the case of the Merino breed, to have more wrinkles in their skin. These extra wrinkles increase the potential wool growing surface area, resulting in a better yield of wool for humans. It is worth noting that sheep only endure his to supply the demand for their wool.
The cost to the animals is high. Wrinkly skin for a sheep is not a desirable trait. Wrinkles provide areas that are susceptible to "fly-strike", a condition where flies lay their eggs in the moist folds of skin. The eggs hatch into larvae that set about eating through the sheep's skin, causing significant injury and in some cases, death.
The issue of selective breeding for traits that suit humans is just one issue faced by sheep bred for their wool. Lambs are bred to be born in winter so that they can be fattened on spring pastures. Being born at the coldest time of year also results in extremely high mortality rates. The Australian sheep industry estimates that each year, over ten million lambs die within 48 hours of their birth, largely due to exposure. Those who do survive are subjected to procedures such as tail docking and mulesing, painful procedures that are common, and legally performed without pain relief. Sheep bred for their wool are typically killed well before they reach their natural end. As they age, their wool production will decline. As a result, sheep used for breeding are usually slaughtered and replaced at just three years of age, while sheep used for their wool are slaughtered around the age of 7. The natural lifespan of a sheep is around 12 years. The oldest sheep we have cared for at the sanctuary lived to 16.
Wool is often touted as a natural, environmentally friendly product however this is far from the case. There are many elements of wool production that have a negative impact on our environment that are often left out of the equation. The impact of clearing native vegetation to create land for grazing presents a significant threat to biodiversity, has implications for greenhouse gas emissions and lead to soil degradation.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics states; "In Australia, Grazing accounts for just over half of all land use. Environmental issues associated with sheep and cattle grazing include habitat loss, surface soil loss, salinity, and soil and water quality issues. Drought condition in 2002–03 exacerbated soil loss, leading to the highest dust storm activity since the 1960s"
Further to this, farming sheep for wool can create water pollution through the run off of manures and chemical treatments. It is worth stepping back and taking in the full picture when we consider the environmental impact of wool.
So what are your options? We all want to keep warm, so what can we do? Thanks to a surge in the compassionate community, and the drive to be more planet-friendly, fantastic new fibres are being discovered and becoming more available to us every day. There are many sheep and planet-friendly fibres that provide alternatives to wool, here are just a few:
Bamboo - Naturally antibacterial, bamboo is a beautiful, renewable fibre that regulates body temperature and keeps you warm without the bulk of wool.
Linen. A material that requires no chemicals at all. It offers resistance, durability and is gentle for sensitive skin.
Hemp is 100% biodegradable, recyclable and reusable. Hemp doesn't trap heat like wool does, meaning it is less likely to support the growth of bacteria.
Soybean fibre. Free from petrochemicals and completely biodegradable, this fabric drapes like silk but has the comfort of cashmere, making it perfect for knitwear.
Organic cotton offers all the benefits of conventional cotton but without environmental impacts.
Tencel. Made from the cellulose found in the pulp of the eucalyptus tree, it is produced using closed-loop technology which means that the water and chemicals are reused.
Woocoa. An innovative material made from coconut and hemp fibre treated with enzymes from the oyster mushroom.
Nullabor. Developed by Australian innovation company Nanolloose, this is a fabric created by using bacteria to ferment liquid coconut waste from the food industry into cellulose.