Week 3: The Costs of Eating Lamb

lambs playing

We hope you are enjoying this learning experience and have tried some of the delicious recipes from week 2!

This week we will be looking at sheep, and delving into how our demand for lamb is impacting the animals in the industry, the environment, and our health.

Lambs

Sheep are, unfortunately, associated with the idea that they are mindless followers, but this is far from true. Sheep have been found to have great memory and recognition skills, and form strong long-term friendships. Here are some interesting things you may not have known about sheep –

Sheep are intelligent

Sheep, like dogs, can learn their name and be trained to perform tricks – but their intelligence goes far beyond this. A study tested sheep ability to learn associations between stimuli, actions, outcomes, and adapting behaviours. It found that sheep can perform ‘executive’ cognitive tasks, something that is an important part of primate behaviour and has never been shown before in any other large animal [1].

They have excellent recognition skills and emotional response

Research found that sheep can learn to navigate themselves out of a complex maze [2] and have the ability to remember up to 50 sheep or human faces [3]. Beyond this, they can also differentiate between facial expressions, preferring a smile to a frown [4], and exhibit clear behavioural signs of recognising absent individuals and vocalise their response [5].

“The way the sheep’s brain is organised suggests they must have some kind of emotional response to what they see in the world.”

Keith Kendrick

They are loyal and form long-term bonds

Sheep have complex social structures and develop long-term friendships. The concepts of loyalty and friendship are driven by emotions. In 2009, a study found that sheep can experience the emotions of fear, anger, despair, boredom, and happiness [6]. A study in 1993 found that rams would look out for one another, intervening on behalf of weaker sheep, support each other in fights [7], and even grieve when one dies or is gone.

Lambs love to play with their friends, and to signal play-time, they will kick their back legs in the air. Sheep are also known to make friends with other species.

Walter, a ram rescued from slaughter living at Where Pigs Fly Farm Sanctuary, chose to live in a paddock with his best-friend Oink, a blind cow who was rescued from a school project. He became Oink’s eyes, and they were inseparable until Walter passed away at 15 years old.

The natural life expectancy of a sheep is 10-12 years

Sheep have a life expectancy of 10-12 years, although some can live for over 20 years [8]. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the oldest sheep lived to be 28 years and 51 weeks old [9]

The Industry

Farmers often use the sheep for both their wool and flesh, meaning the meat and wool industries are inherently connected. To maximise profits, the sheep are most commonly cross-breeds or dual-purpose breeds (border Leicester, Corriedale), or Suffolk (just meat). Lambs are often sheared just before slaughter, at around 8 months old.

The global sheepmeat market stands at over 1 billion sheep [10, 11]. Each year approximately 550,000,000 of them are killed for human consumption [12]. Australia has a flock of around 63,700,000 (down from 72.1 million in 2018 due to drought) [13], and kills around 21,000,000 lambs annually [14]. An additional 8,400,000 sheep are killed when they are deemed unprofitable by the wool industry due to slowing reproduction and brittle wool at around 5-6 years old.

Common Practices

In Australia, the following procedures are standard for lambs.

Tail docking

Tail docking involves severing the tail at the joint using a hot blade or rubber ring. If using a rubber ring, it takes weeks for the tail to “die” and fall off. A lamb is allowed to have their tail cut off without pain relief if they are under 6 months old [15].

Castration

Lambs are castrated for management reasons and perceived “meat quality benefits”. This can be done using rubber rings, which cut off circulation, however, a lamb marking knife can also be used [16]. They can be castrated without pain relief if they are under 6 months old [15].

Mulesing

Mulesing involves cutting the flaps of skin and muscle, from a lamb’s breech, with a hot blade or sharp knife. A lamb that is under 6 months old, can be mulesed without pain relief [15].

lamb farming Australia mulesing
Lambs being mulesed on Australian farms.
An investigation by PETA Australia.

Lambs are often tails docked, castrated, and mulesed at the same time.

Bludgeoning

A lamb can be killed by a blow to the forehead if they are under 10kg when there is no firearm, captive bolt, or lethal injection available [15].

Bleeding-out

A sheep can be killed by being bled out if there is no firearm, captive bolt, or lethal injection available [15].

Selective breeding

To increase lamb production, sheep have been selectively bred to give birth to more than one lamb. Studies have found that the mortality rate increases with twins and triplets. Triplet foetuses are smaller than twin and singleton lambs. After birth, there is a higher chance of death due to mismatched supply and demand for milk. Sheep are very maternal, however, giving birth to triplets increases the mother’s stress prior and after birth, and she bleats more frequently. It is as if she knows she will be unable to care for all three babies [17].

This is also dangerous for the mothers, who exhaust themselves during birth. The stress and pressure to birth more than one lamb can cause them to be ‘downed’, meaning they are unable to stand. They may also be left prolapsing and dying, leaving behind their lambs [18].

Winter lambing

As profitability is a focus of farming, lowering costs is often put before the welfare of the animals. Farmers in Australia practice winter lambing to breed the highest number of lambs at the lowest cost and to meet consumer demands. This means sheep are impregnated so that they give birth in the winter months, and their lambs are weaned during spring when pastures are most fertile. 

Triplet breeding and winter lambing combined, increase the chance of mortality due to the mother’s inability to care for all three young, and their lower body weight makes them more susceptible to the cold [19]

As a result, an estimated 1 in 4 lambs die from exposure and malnutrition within 48 hours of birth – that’s approximately 15 million lambs a year [20]. On farms where selective breeding isn’t practiced, and a ewe only gives birth to one lamb at a time, the mortality rate is closer to 1 in 5 in colder areas and 1 in 6 in warmer climates.

“Lambs that have been abandoned by their mothers can be seen crying and approaching other mothers in the hopes of being cared for. Eventually, they give up, and die from the cold, starvation, or are preyed upon by predators.”

Anonymous rescuer

Little to no shelter

Although recommended, it is not mandatory to provide sheep with shelter. Shelter from extreme weather, such as heatwaves and cold snaps, has proven to reduce mortality rates, however, only 12% of farmers view lamb mortality as a welfare concern [21 PDF]. Death due to exposure and mismothering can cause prolonged suffering for the lambs.

Lamb farming australia
Sheep without shelter in drought areas.

Feedlots

Sheep, like cows, can be “finished” in feedlots. This is designed to increase their slaughter weight, to increase profits. Being grazing animals, the conditions can be very stressful for the sheep.

lamb farming australia
8,000 sheep inside an intensive confinement system (feedlot)
Credit: Farm Transparency Project.

Live export

In Australia, mutton (the meat of full-grown sheep) is not very popular. As a result, the industry sends live sheep onto ships to be slaughtered overseas. In 2019, over 1,100,000 sheep were sent on live export ships [22]. Live export causes intense suffering before and during the export journey, and on arriving at the destination for slaughter [23].

The entire process of live exporting animals is incredibly stressful. “Mustering, handling, transporting, fasting, mixing with other sheep, an altered diet including novel feeds, and shipping itself all constitute many stressors to the sheep, with individual and cumulative effects..” [24]. Like cows, their confinement can last up to five weeks, living in their own filth [25]. At the other end, they face unregulated and cruel slaughter practices which can fall outside Australia’s welfare standards.

In 2018, a whistle-blower filmed the conditions on live export ships. Sheep, with almost no room to move, were suffering from heat stress due to poor ventilation and were unable to reach their food and water. They were stuck in mounds of wet faeces, blinded from infectious disease, and lambs were being killed onboard [26, 27]. During transit, sheep are also moved from a pasture-based diet to concentrated pellets, which some animals reject. Failure to eat can lead to salmonellosis and even death, with around half of sheep mortalities occurring this way.

Environmental impacts

Farming sheep, whether intensive or pasture-raised, has negative impacts on the environment. Our demand for animal flesh and by-products (skin, eggs, and milk), is causing environmental destruction, species extinction, water pollution, erosion, and ocean dead zones [28].

Weakened conservation laws implemented in late 2017 by the NSW Liberal-National government has seen land clearing jump by a staggering 1,300 per cent according to the Natural Resources Commission.

Jessica Campbell, GQ
sheep farming land clearing

Land use

To make room for approximately 63.7 million sheep [29], land is continuously being cleared. In 2017, Australia was placed in the top 10 land clearing nations in the world [30]. Clearing native vegetation threatens biodiversity, impairs the functioning of terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems, and is a key contributor to human-induced climate change [31]. We are destroying irreplaceable habitats, where any regrowth will be of a lower diversity and lack important structural elements (for example, hollow trees and ground timber) [32].

Sheep are grazing animals, and extensive grazing has been linked with the destruction of soil, pollution of water, and decline in wildlife habitats. The impacts can be reduced with rotational grazing, where intermittent grazing and animal density varies, however, farmers most commonly set up continuous grazing, meaning the number of animals per unit area doesn’t vary throughout the year, as it keeps income consistent [33].

Sheep hooves place pressure on the soil, through trampling, causing it to compact. Compaction diminishes the soil structure, increasing water runoff and erosion. This compaction reduces plant growth, as roots struggle to break through the soil [33].

lamb farming environment impact

Biodiversity

Mammals and other vertebrates, such as koalas, quolls, and creek frogs, are at risk of extinction due to land clearing, pollution, competing for resources (food, water, breeding site), changes in vegetation, and introduced diseases. The sheepmeat and wool industry are directly related to the destruction of dingoes, both native Australian animals, as they prey on the lambs and are considered a “pest” to farming; and kangaroos, as they “compete” for resources [34, 35].

land clearing lamb farming
Koala in cleared habitat.
WIRES – Louise O’Brien

Water

Sheep production systems use relatively less water in comparison to cow farming – except for those in drought areas. Regardless, soil compaction from sheep trampling impacts surrounding water quality. The harder ground surface, coupled with reduced plant matter, causes the water to carry with it sediment, thus increasing erosion. This causes the water to become polluted. Sheep excrements contain nitrogen, which is necessary for plant growth, but in excess pollutes local water sources by leaching into groundwater or being carried with surface water. An excess in nutrients can result in algal bloom outbreaks, destroying the ecosystem [33].

algal bloom animal agriculture
Algal bloom outbreak.
Minister Phil Costa’s Office/AAP

Emissions

Being ruminant animals, sheep impact the atmosphere and reduce air quality by producing greenhouse gases. They release carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. Although not a greenhouse gas, they also produce ammonia, which is related to acid rain [33].

Health impacts

Lamb, being red meat, is known to increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, a stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and a heart attack. To learn more about this, refer to the Health section of The Impacts of Eating Beef.

“Some people think the “plant-based, whole foods diet” is extreme. Every year, half a million people will have their chest opened up and a vein taken from their leg and sewn into their coronary artery. Some people would call that extreme.”

Dr Caldwell B. Esselstyn

It is important to note that a vegan diet isn’t healthy if you replace meat, dairy, and eggs, with processed foods. The healthiest diet is one that contains an abundance of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and legumes. Dr Michael Greger’s Daily Dozen app shows you the food groups you should be eating in a day. It is free on both iPhone and Android phones.

sheep and lamb

How can you make a difference?

You already are! By choosing to learn about the impacts of these industries, and initiating changes in your life, you are helping change the future of our food system. We need to work together to help others see how our habits are impacting the planet, the animals, and ourselves.

By reducing our demand for lamb, fewer sheep will be bred, and less land will need to be cleared. In turn, fewer animals will be killed (directly and indirectly), native animals can regain natural habitats, pollution (both air and water) will be reduced, and there will be less food-related illnesses! 

To help you leave lambs off of your plate, try experimenting with a variety of plant-based alternatives! Check out this week’s vegan “lamb” recipes here for some tasty inspo.

If you have any questions, feel free to pop them in the comments section below, or post it in the Conscious Consumer Facebook group!

Please note that we are not nutritionists. If you would like more nutritional advice, please reach out to us and we can find someone in your area.

2 Comments

  1. I just started my blog a few months ago and discovered this site just two weeks now, and wow…So grateful for you. Thanks for the post. awesome.. Georgeanna Kendrick Auberon

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