“Sheep’s main purpose in life is to find ways of dying” is a cruel jest of farmers.
So they are dying primarily because of misuse or ill-treatment, and the treatment of sheep is particularly shameful for that reason. We now have the lambing season running full bore, thousands of lambs and other sheep are being collected and sent to market and we have a new virus upsetting things with cruel effects on reproduction, the famous Schmallenberg virus. The virus upsets things by reducing fertility, with cruel effects on reproduction. It has struck at an unfortunate time for that reason and it once again shows the disadvantages of lamb production (and possibly mutton and all the other products from sheep).
The main trouble with lambs is that for half the year, the sheep are ‘empty’. That is their wombs are not consuming food to produce off-spring; they are seasonal breeders (or almost all of them are). So this deficiency is made up primarily by imports from New Zealand lamb, whose seasonality mirrors the English supply; therefore sheep meat can be imported from New Zealand to fill the gap. Of course the obvious thing might appear to be to use hormones or aim to get two seasons in a year, but that has not proved successful at all in this country, although it may be a possibility in other countries because sheep (and goat) production is widespread in all major countries of the world. There have been efforts tried with hormones and other means of reproduction but sheep remain stubbornly resistant.
Most of the ‘Five Freedoms’ of the Animal Welfare Act are disallowed for sheep. Moreover, many sheep are in transit and worse still, they are being taken to countries where ritual slaughter is the norm. There seem to be supporters of this trade, although at the present time, customers do not like it.
So it is not really a profitable enterprise and obviously it attracts subsidies. Many people are concerned that there shouldn’t be a need for any subsidies in food at all and still less for subsidising the massive production of sheep. But there are areas reckoned to be particularly suitable for it, which are useless for many other purposes – the vales and Highlands and lots of Britain that is unsuitable for crop production and for other producing animals.
There have been methods of reducing losses from hypothermia, starvation and disease in the Highlands by avoiding or reducing the amount of travelling and lamb transport (‘transhumance’ or ’agistment’) so that they can be kept where they are without being subjected to adverse weather conditions, such as extremes of hot and cold. Polytunnels, for example have been used, particularly for lambing. Of course that’s an element of intensification that increases the risk of epidemic disease.
The whole business of sheep rearing is clouded in mystery and hypocrisy. The lamb is regarded and applauded as a symbol of innocence and respect. People love to take pictures of lambs at this time in the market: little do they wonder if the lambs are going to slaughter in very rough conditions. This is an impression that could form in children’s minds. Parents have the difficult job of persuading that these woolly bundles aren’t heading for a sticky end and so we have the cruel hymns and Blake’s poem to the “little lamb, who made thee?” that strike a particularly powerful contrast to it.
Unfortunately, many people overlook the reality in education about animals and this sort of Father Christmas attitude to farming is a sad result of the delusions we are brought up with. We should, as adults, accept the shame of this and do our utmost to avoid eating sheep meat. The sheep who have to feed this trade have little chance of enjoying their life and are denied any sort of peaceful existence.
However, ramblers and others might have noticed many sheep are still on the Highlands and many are on their knees as they have untreated foot troubles. Antibiotics and other remedies are used in foot bathing, but should not be used to cure a disease that may never happen, risking development of antibiotic resistance.
There are not many other products besides meat from lamb, except wool, and that is struggling in the market to produce a profit but it is hardly worth the farmers shearing the sheep in the summer that we have in Britain and with sheep that are accustomed to other things like dagging and cleaning of the sheep’s backsides. So the cost of shearing sheep hardly repays the expense of bringing the shearers in from the Antipodes to produce this sheared product, finally proving that there are viable substitutes for wool, as people of the Beauty Without Cruelty persuasion knew, and there are satisfactory substitutes for almost every household purpose. So there are no profits in this game, except for very specialised products from specially kept sheep.
Nevertheless, women are advised by sheep experts not to go near sheep when they’re lambing because there is a risk of dangerous diseases.