Sheep farming in Ireland
Ireland has over 5 million sheep, most of which are farmed extensively, and it is a common sight to see sheep rambling over fields, mountain sides and valleys. In fact, there are a number of sheep that have gone feral, having broken free from their pastures.
They are sent to slaughter between 5 and 8 months old. Just over 3 million were slaughtered in 2020.
Key welfare issues
Tail docking: lambs often have their tails docked routinely for hygiene reasons, to prevent the accumulation of faeces around the tail and reduce lesions and infections from flies. However research shows that tail docking is often an unnecessary practice and does little for the health and welfare of lambs. The risk of fly-strike (the main reason for tail docking) can be reduced by other means such as careful use of appropriate fly deterrent, avoiding soiling of the rear end by reducing worm burdens, checking diet etc and the cutting away of dirty, wet wool from around the tail and anus of the sheep. The risk of fly strike depends on climatic conditions, sheep breed and the production system. For example, early lambs are not tail docked because they are born in winter and slaughtered in the spring, before fly strike emerges.
Tail docking is generally carried out without anaesthetic with the application of a tight rubber band being the most common method used, and can only be used up to 7 days of age. It is illegal to tail dock a lamb after the age of 7 days without the use of anaesthesia. However, the procedure is commonly carried out on sheep over the legal age limit without any form of pain relief. Other methods of docking include the use of a hot iron or clamps and anasthetic must be applied. All tail docking methods result in acute pain and should only be carried out where absolutely necessary. Tail docking over the age of 7 days must be performed by a veterinary practitioner with the use of anasthetic.
Castration: male lambs are castrated to prevent breeding, aid fattening and reduce aggression. It is done by using a clamp or rubber ring to restrict blood flow to the scrotum. It is generally performed without any anaesthetic or pain relief and although it is illegal to perform this procedure after the ram is 8 days old, the practice is widespread.
Veterinary Ireland’s Policy on the Performance of Painful Procedures on Animals adopted in 2016, calls for the use of appropriate anaesthesia and analgesia in all cases involving painful procedures on animals to minimize any pain during and after the procedure. It also recommends these procedures are avoided where possible, only carried out where absolutely necessary, and that they are carried out as young as possible. However, The EFSA Scientific Opinion on sheep welfare (2014) reports that experts consider painful management procedures to have significant welfare consequences for lambs.
Ewe and lamb mortality: many ewes die during winter and spring because of exposure, poor body reserves to cope with winter and inadequate grazing, many lambs are born stillborn or aborted or die through disease, exposure and starvation, multiple births are common in many modern sheep breeds and often result in problems for the ewe during delivery and produce more vulnerable lambs.
According to a Teagasc farm survey, in 2019 there was a 7% lamb mortality rate, but many farmers had much higher rates. Nearly half of all deaths occur within the first week of life. The most common causes for lamb mortality, still births and abortions found were infectious disease such as toxoplasmosis, difficult births, bacteraemia/septicaemia and pneumonia.
The main causes found by Teagasc were a result of poor hygiene conditions and lambs not being given adequate colostrum. Many farmers choose to use artificial colostrum rather than allow lambs the colostrum and milk of their own mothers.
Ewes that are underfed in pregnancy produce weaker lambs that are more prone to disease. Also stressful birthing conditions can increase mortality rates.
Overstocking is also a huge concern for lamb and ewe bonding. This can lead to reduce suckling frequency, while having other negative health implications for the lambs.
Sheep in Ireland are also live exported, mainly to Europe but have been exported to countries like Singapore and Qatar in previous years. In 2021 over 19,000 sheep were exported to Europe mainly during July and August when temperatures can exceed 30 degrees causing them to suffer from thirst and heat stress. Sheep can be transported in overcrowded trucks with insufficient headroom that can add to the heat stress and overcrowding can contribute to poor ventilation. There can also be issues with sheep being unable to access or use drinking devices.
Sheep are largely exported during the run up the the festival EID al-Adha where they may face slaughter in unofficial ‘pop up’ slaughterhouse where there is no pre-stunning.
In January 2022, 305 sheep were included in a shipment of cattle to Libya where they endured 10 days crossing choppy seas just to be slaughtered in a brtutal manner not deemed acceptable in Ireland or Europe.
Intensive sheep farming
Some farmers choose to keep their lambs indoors and farm intensively, lambs kept in sheds have higher rates of mortality, lameness and disease, are given more antibiotics and may not be able to later adapt to the outdoor weather conditions. Many farmers rear sheep extensively but bring them indoors for finishing, where they will spend their last weeks before slaughter in crowded pens fed on concentrate.