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I Love Wool Sweaters, but Are They Ethical?

We have been raising animals on our farm for over 10 years—sheep, dogs, cats, chickens, turkeys, guinea pigs, ponies, donkeys, and a pig.

People interpret being vegan in different ways. For some, it is eating a plant-based diet. For others, it is about animal cruelty. Some use veganism to express their views on the environment or politics. But on the whole, being vegan is eliminating the use and exploitation of animals for any reason, and wool is no exception.

The commercial wool industry is fraught with horror stories of mass production where sheep are reared in unnatural conditions with no regard for the animal that actually made it. But saying that wool is “bad” ignores the reality that most sheep grow wool, and that wool has to come off.

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A Shorn Sheep Is a Healthy Sheep

We raise two different breeds of sheep: Katahdins and North Country Cheviots (NCC). We chose those breeds because they each have distinct characteristics we were looking for. The most significant difference is their wool: Katahdins are a hair sheep and shed every spring, and Cheviots are a wool breed that need to be sheared each year.

Part of our yearly farm plan is shearing our sheep in June. If they are not sheared, well, then you can have some serious health problems on your hands (which we, unfortunately, know from experience).

A sheep turned onto pasture in the spring will often develop very liquid manure for the first while which will build up on unshorn wool. This build-up will lead all too often to the fatal flystrike.

Another serious problem with not shearing sheep is when a newborn lamb has difficulty finding a teat underneath a massive wool build-up (we shear after lambing to avoid pregnancy complications, but if the ewes are shorn every year, this seems to keep the wool in check so it doesn’t interfere).

Also, no one wants to go through a hot summer day wearing a wool sweater. Even on mildly warm days, an unshorn sheep can die of heat exhaustion. Their bodies will get so hot under their wool that you can barely touch their skin.

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The Ethics of Shearing

Though it looks horrible when the sheep are bent and twisted about, the act of shearing is humane. The awkward postures keep the sheep from struggling and injuring themselves or the shearer. These positions also keep the animal’s skin taught so they don’t get cut. Small nicks and cuts, unfortunately, happen from time to time, but these heal well in a few days with an application of disinfectant.

It is best not to feed sheep beforehand (yoga on a full stomach is never a good idea), but it takes only a few hours to shear a small flock so they can get back on pasture quickly. We shear outdoors, so we choose a cool, overcast day to avoid heatstroke during shearing, and protect the newly shorn skin from sunburn. And maybe we reward them with a treat of grain afterwards.

The process of shearing a small flock of sheep is like taking your dog to the groomer. But this is often not the reality that faces a sheep at shearing time.

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Commercial Operations

Most commercial sheep operations in our area have 200-500 ewes. The lambs get sold at auction to the feedlots, and wool is a by-product that is sold for peanuts to local woollen mills where it usually makes its way to China. It barely covers the cost of the shearing for the farmers, but at least the sheep are shorn.

Shearing days on these farms are long and stressful where sheep need to be sheared as quickly as possible. Of course, there are skilled shearers out there who do not want to hurt animals, but the industry promotes wool (and the sheep) as a commodity to be processed fast and efficiently.

I can only imagine the implications of this on massive sheep farms where they shear tens of thousands of sheep throughout the season. This is roughly equivalent to shearing 1 sheep every two minutes, 24 hours a day, for 10 weeks straight.

While a commercial sheep operation is not vegan, there is the more complicated issue of keeping sheep as pets.

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Useful or Garbage?

Our sheep would be considered pets since they certainly cost more than they bring in. Our sheep each grow about 5lbs of wool per year, so we end the summer with a large pile of wool. It is hard to know what the vegan thing is to do with that wool. Throw it away? That seems like such a waste, and a little disrespectful to the animal that grew it. Wool is extremely difficult to dispose of since it takes years to decompose and doesn’t really burn so the environmental impact can be fairly negative.

We use our sheep’s wool in various ways around the farm. We insulated our chicken brooder house with it with good results. We have started using it as a mulch in the garden. Some extra dirty wool was dumped in the field and it is still there 3 years later. Yes, some ended up in the landfill. Our first wether (castrated male) was named Peter, and we had his wool cleaned and made into batts that we use for a pillow.

But am I a hypocrite to call myself a vegan and yet have a wool pillow on my bed? Did I exploit an animal by making pillow stuffing from his wool that I sheared with my own hand?

The Price Tag

Whether you hire a shearer or do it yourself there is a price tag. The first few years we hired someone and it cost about $7 per sheep. We now do it ourselves, and the start-up cost was about $600 for the shearing machine and $200 for extra blades. But there is also a yearly cost. You have to switch blades every few sheep, and since the blades are quite expensive it is best to get them sharpened. Sharpening is relatively cheap and it costs about $2 per sheep per year.

Now here is another gray area for a vegan keeping pet sheep: is it wrong to sell the wool to pay for the cost of the shearing? If we had ten dollars for every dog nail and cat hairball we threw away, most of us would still be spending money on our pets. Or can we only be vegan if animals cost us money?

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Maybe Not Vegan but Technically Ethical

The goal of our farm is to care for everything we do as ethically and as close to nature as possible. This includes our sheep and the wool that comes off their backs.

We defined being vegan as not exploiting animals. Can wool be vegan? Technically, no… but it can be ethical.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2021 Bellwether Farming

Comments

Bellwether Farming (author) from Alberta, Canada on February 18, 2021:

Yes, Ali Sami Farooq! Wool is a true friend in the cold winter months (especially here in Alberta, Canada where it gets to -40 °C).

Ali Sami Farooq from London on February 18, 2021:

Hii Friends, Ali Sami Farooq this side, i also like wool sweaters and they very helpful to save us from winter.

Bellwether Farming (author) from Alberta, Canada on February 05, 2021:

Well said, DWDavisRSL! No lifestyle choices should be lead by judgement. Unfortunately veganism often has a negative stigma.

DW Davis from Eastern NC on February 05, 2021:

As a person with omnivorous dietary habits, I see nothing unethical about you using the wool from your sheep in whatever fashion you are able and comfortable with. I would go so far as to say that any vegan who tries to make you feel guilty about it is the person with the ethical problem.

Bellwether Farming (author) from Alberta, Canada on February 05, 2021:

Thank you for taking your time to read our article, Peggy W! It is crazy how long it takes for some organic materials to decompose.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 05, 2021:

You have presented an interesting question and answer with your article about raising and shearing sheep. I had no idea that it took that long a time for wool to disintegrate.