Sheep farming is certainly nothing new: wool has been a fabric source since before 10,000 BC and continues to be used in fashion, bedding, and carpeting around the world.
Unfortunately, there is a dark side to wool production that many are unaware of. Tail docking, castration, and mulesing are still common practices within many sheep farming operations to this day.
Lamb meat, lanolin wax, parchment paper, milk, and cheese are also produced from sheep and sold globally. Humans have been recorded using sheep for their skin, meat, and milk since around 11,000 BC, and sheep with thick wool were introduced around 6,000 BC in Iran.
The domestication of sheep led to a boom in the wool trade around the world and was a large contributor to the wealth of Spain. Riches from the wool trade even helped fund the voyages of the conquistadors to the New World.
Wool isn’t the only profitable substance extracted from sheep. An oily substance called lanolin is meant to protect sheep’s skin from infections and waterproof their coat, but humans have been using it as a moisturizer for thousands of years. You can even still find it in modern makeup such as lipsticks and mascara.
Cheeses like feta, ricotta, and Pecorino Romano were originally made with sheep’s milk and many authentic kinds of cheese remain that way today.
Whenever there is the potential for exploitation and profit, factory farms are never far behind.
Sheep eat a lot – and as they digest their food, gases build up inside their intestines that must be expelled. So they burp and fart a lot, releasing enormous amounts of methane gas into the atmosphere. Australia’s vast sheep population (over 70 million) has been identified as a major contributor to climate change. One sheep can produce about 30 litres of methane each day. And in New Zealand, gases passed by animals – mostly sheep – make up more than 90 per cent of the nation’s total methane emissions.
Manure from sheep and other animals exploited on farms has significantly contributed to the increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases over the last 250 years. And excrement from sheep is polluting our land, air, and water, resulting in eutrophication, a serious ecological problem that occurs when run-off waste causes excessive growth of plant life in water systems. This suffocates animals by depleting oxygen levels in the water and is the leading cause of “dead zones”.
Wool production gobbles up precious resources. Environmentalists are increasingly highlighting the negative impact of sheep farming on the landscape.
Land has been cleared and trees have been cut down to make room for grazing sheep, leading to increased soil salinity and erosion as well as decreased biodiversity.
Approximately 20 per cent of pastureland worldwide is considered degraded because of overgrazing, compaction, and erosion. In the first half of the 20th century, Argentina was second only to Australia in wool production. But when local Argentinean sheep farmers got too greedy, the scale of their operations outgrew the capacity of the land to sustain them. Soil erosion in the region has triggered a desertification process that officials estimate threatens as much as 93 per cent of the land. Today, Argentina is no longer a major wool producer – and Australia could suffer a similar fate.
Pesticides and insecticides are often used on sheep to keep them free of parasites. Once sheep have been shorn, their wool is scoured and washed using chemicals, which can also contaminate nearby water sources.
“Sheep dip” pesticides cause soil contamination and water pollution, while the use of dangerous organophosphate chemicals in the 1990s left many sheep farmers with debilitating health conditions.
On top of the wool trade’s horrendous environmental impact, sheep suffer terribly in the industry. PETA has released video exposés recorded at nearly 100 facilities on four continents revealing that sheep are mutilated, abused, and skinned alive – even for “responsibly sourced” wool on disingenuously named “sustainable” farms.