Society for the Advancement of Animal Wellbeing

- Protecting Animals and Conserving the Environment

Sheep and lambs

Sheep are docile natured animals and they are also very intelligent. Adult female sheep are called “ewes”, the males are “rams” and the children or infants are called “lambs”.

In the wild these herbivores live for more than 15 years and often graze on different grasses, leaves twigs as well as other plants. Sheep also have very strong social relationships and have other higher brain functions similar to humans.

Dr. Keith Kendrick and co-researchers at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, England discovered that sheep can remember 50 different faces of other sheep and retain this memory for up to 2 years. In another study, scientists demonstrated that sheep have well developed spatial memory. The animals navigated their way through a complex maze and actually got better at repeated attempts which showed their ability to learn. Sheep can also self medicate, if they feel discomfort they will eat something that they have learned makes them feel better.

The mother-child relationship of sheep is also very affectionate and caring. Mother ewes get distressed when they can’t find their young. The lambs will often follow there mothers around where ever they go. Lambs also enjoy climbing and group play and are very curious just like any other child. Ewes will often foster or adopt lambs that have become lost from there family or flock.

Insemination and reproduction

Although sheep are not thought of as intensively factory farmed animals like cows, pigs and hens as they are allowed to graze, the methods and conditions used to raise these animals are equally cruel and inhumane.

We will now take a look at the entire system of sheep farming used through out the world in order to better understand the scale of suffering that they have to endure.

Starting with the process of breeding lambs also known as lambing, there are a variety of methods available. Traditionally special rams were allowed to naturally impregnate ewes. But due to increased desire for profit, artificial insemination is used, a process that is much more insensitive and invasive.

Firstly to get the semen from the ram an electronic probe is inserted in to his anus and pushed against his prostrate gland. A button is then pushed which sends an electrical current through the prostrate and the rest of the animal thus inducing ejaculation. This process often leaves the ram writhing and kicking in pain on the floor.

Next a young ewe is grabbed and placed on her back and a syringe is forcefully inserted in to the womb and the fluid is injected. Often the syringe has been used before and so may contain transmittable diseases. The process is extremely distressing for the young ewe especially as she may only be 7 to 9 months old as this is usually the time when she has just entered sexually maturity. Another painful procedure that is becoming increasingly popular is embryo implantation.


The entire reproductive lives of sheep is manipulated and controlled in order to achieve the highest number of lambs, as it is the babies’ meat and wool that fetches the highest price at market. This interference in the natural cycle has many undesirable and morbid results.

Ordinarily in nature the ewes will come in to heat during autumn and winter and give birth five months later in the spring time. This will give the new born lamb the greatest chance of survival as the weather is getting warmer and the grass and plants are growing in abundance.

However as the farmers wish to get their lambs to market before Easter and ahead of the competition, they manipulate the ewes to give birth in the middle of winter. As a result in the UK alone, 4 million or 20% of all new born lambs die in the first few weeks of life from freezing conditions and starvation.

In order to alter the ewes fertility cycle they are fed hormones and kept confined in sheds where the light intensity and duration are artificially controlled. The conditions in these sheds resemble those of factory farms where the animals are packed densely and defecate where they stand, this consequently causes the spread of infectious diseases which may result in sickness or death. In addition the fertility treatment often causes the birth of twins and triplets which is very uncommon in sheep. This is problematic since when triplets are born one of them will be rejected as the ewes only have 2 teats. The rejected lamb may have to be force fed, a tube will be pushed down its throat in to his or her stomach and milk will be pumped in. After 2 or 3 days the lamb can be sold at market.

Other weak lambs may also be sold at 1 month old even before being completely weaned. They will be kept in sheds and intensively fed and fattened to be made ready for slaughter. Depending on the type of lamb meat required these babies may be slaughtered at the extremely young age of 10 weeks old or alternatively at 10 or 15 months. Their mother ewes will be slaughtered at anywhere from 4 to 6 years old after they have been worn out mentally and physically from being kept constantly pregnant. As there is low demand for the ewe’s flesh she will be sold as mutton for processed and tinned foods. Every year 15% to 25% of the mothering sheep will be heartlessly culled if they have low fertility or lameness.  



Cruel proceedures

Before being slaughtered the infant lambs will have a number of horrific procedures carried out on them.

At only a few days old all the male lambs will be castrated. Usually they will have an extremely tight plastic ring placed around their genitalia, this cuts off the blood supply and the reproductive organ subsequently withers and falls off. This is excruciatingly painful and is done with out pain killers or anesthetic. In older lambs the scrotum will be cut open and the testes extracted. This is all done to make the meat tenderer as well as to control the temperament of the child and accelerate his growth.

The babies will also have their ears tagged by piercing and under go “tail docking”, this is when the tail is either cut off or has an extremely tight plastic ring placed on it which like the castration causes the tail to shrivel and fall off. The docking is meant to prevent parasitic infections but there is little scientific evidence to suggest that it is effective.

Older sheep may also have their horns removed whilst the lambs will be disbudded. These are all agonizing and unnecessary operations often carried by non-expert staff with no sanitization or medication. Some young lambs are so terrorized by the castration that they subsequently go into shock and stop suckling, they eventually die from starvation beside their distraught mothers.


 For Both lambs and sheep destined for slaughter, they are usually stunned first unless it is a ritual or religious killing.

The method of stunning involves the use of electric paddles placed on the animal’s head, a shock is given which induces convulsions in the sheep and subsequently unconsciousness, this is by no means effective or humane. Next the throat is slit open in order to sever the arteries in the neck and the animal is bled out.

Lambs account for the majority of sheep slaughtered in the EU. The wool or pelt of the lamb is also valued for its softness. Persian wool coats which are very popular in the high-end fashion industry are actually from infant karakul lambs that are caught and slaughtered a mere 1 or 2 days after birth. They are prized for the tight curls of the wool which unravel after the third day and so must be killed whilst they are only a couple of days old and still stumbling on their feet. Even more abhorrent is the taste of for fetal karakul woolen pelts which fetch an even higher price on the market.

These pelts are obtained by slaughtering a pregnant ewe two weeks before giving birth. The ewe is tossed on to her back and restrained. The throat is then slit and then the head is dislocated and severed from the body. The unborn baby can be seen to kick and struggle for life inside the womb, once the movement stops and the fetus is dead the stomach is slashed open and the fetus immediately removed and skinned. This is done with out stunning as these operation usually occur in countries with very little animal protection laws, however these pelts can be seen on the cat walks of the fashion capitals of the world as expensive handbags and coats. Approximately 4 to 5 million of these pelts are sold per year.


Obtaining wool from adult sheep in developed countries is also particularly cruel and inhumane. Australia which has a sheep population of over 100 million sheep, supplies more than 30% of the world’s wool.

Most of the sheep are Merino sheep which have wrinkly skin and so therefore produce more wool which is a desirable and profitable quality. However in countries with hot climates the sheep often suffer from heat exhaustion. The wrinkly skin also means that urine and moisture gets trapped and this in turn attracts flies which lay eggs in the folds of the skin. When the maggots hatch they can eat the sheep alive, this condition is known as “flystrike”. In an attempt to prevent this, farmers and operators perform a procedure unique to the Australian wool industry known as “museling”.

This savage operation involves the use of clippers or large scissors to cut and carve off large chunks of flesh from sheep’s rump and tail area. The sheep is tied down on its back when the procedure is carried out. No anesthetics are used and there is no medical supervision or sanitization of the tools or the sheep’s body. The bloody and sore wound is just left open and raw and is therefore prone to infection. However there are other more humane methods that can be used to prevent flystrike. The first and most obvious is to use a different species of sheep that has smoother skin, also correct sheering of the posterior at the right time of year is very effective too.

To watch a video on the mulesing procedure please click here.

Another procedure usually carried out on ewes is “tooth grinding” this when the front teeth are ground down or are sliced off right through the nerve filled pulp down to the gum line. This again is done with out pain medication and is performed in order to stop the sheep breaking their teeth.

The sheep will also suffer from other diseases including lameness, mastitis, sheep scab and toxoplasmosis. They may also develop parasitic infestations, for this the farmers usually forcibly submerge sheep in a bath of potent and highly toxic organophosphate chemicals. The process is known as “dipping” and can cause a variety of adverse reactions in the highly sensitive sheep including breathing difficulties, vomiting, twitching, paralysis and death. Shearing of the sheep is also uncomfortable and distressing as they are roughly handled and the sharp shear due to the high speed of processing often cut through the skin.

Live Exports - Long distance transport

Many million of sheep each year are also exported alive over great distances to different continents. Tens of thousands of sheep are packed in to multiple level ships.

These journeys may take months at sea to complete, the extreme weather experienced will range from very hot, up to 40 degrees Celsius to freezing cold. Defecating and urinating where they eat, disease is rife.

Fed a bare minimum of poor quality food, up to 10% of animals will be dead upon arrival. Often they are sold in countries for ritual slaughter where they will be killed with out stunning.


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Click here to go back to the factory farming section or read more about other issues regarding animals.


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