Many people often wonder is wool vegan? But as Lex Rigby from Viva! investigates sheep farming and the practices used to produce wool for clothes and furnishings, it becomes clear why vegans don't wear wool.
In the UK, sheep are largely reared for meat, with wool increasingly regarded as a natural by-product of the industry.
There are more than 34,000 sheep farmers across the country, and almost 15 million lambs, ewes and rams are slaughtered every year – all at a fraction of their natural lifespan.
Since the 1950s, the popularity of wool as a renewable, hard-wearing and long-lasting fibre has been in decline, resulting in frequent fluctuations in fleece prices.
Brexit uncertainty and the global market crash during the Covid-19 pandemic has also contributed.
Nevertheless, wool still plays a significant role in financially bolstering exploitative animal agriculture and by supporting one, you’ll inevitably be supporting the other.
History of sheep farming in the UK
The domestication of wild sheep is thought to date back to at least 7,000 BC, with the first domestic sheep brought to Britain by Neolithic settlers around 4,000 BC.
They differ from their wild counterparts in conformation, quantity and quality of their fleece as well as their colour, size, milk production and other characteristics favoured by humans.
Today, the UK has around 90 different breeds of sheep – selectively bred to favour the attributes that equip them for living in a range of terrains and landscapes.
The farming industry refers to the three tiers of sheep farming – hill, upland and lowland – as a ‘stratified sheep system’, which is found nowhere else in the world.
While some sheep remain in the same tier their whole lives, others are moved down the system to breed more easily as they age.
Purebred breeding stock are generally found on the hills, older ewes on the uplands and then the mules (cross-mated ewes) and most lambs reared for meat production on the lowlands.
Whatever the system, whatever the tier, they all ultimately end up in the slaughterhouse.
The truth about Britain’s wool industry
The British wool industry produces over 30,000 tonnes of wool every year – which is collected, graded, marketed and sold for use in flooring, furnishings and clothing.
A significant proportion of wool from the UK is exported to China and sold on to textile manufacturers around the world.
Some of this ends up back in Britain, weaved into the clothes we wear, the carpets we furnish our homes with and even mattresses we sleep on.
As with other animals farmed for food, legal protections for sheep leave much to be desired.
Recommendations set out by the government offer some basic guidelines such as; sheep must be shorn at least once a year, shearers should be experienced and adequately trained or supervised by someone who is.
Winter shearing is discouraged – unless the sheep can be housed indoors until the spring, and only when their fleece has regrown to 15-20mm in length.
Sheep didn’t always need shearing. The ability to shed naturally has been bred out of most breeds of sheep, which makes shearing an absolute necessity – even for those living their best lives on animal sanctuaries.
Wild sheep naturally shed their coarse winter coats by scratching their bodies against trees and rubbing away their excess fleece as the weather warms.
However, since the wool of today’s domesticated sheep continuously grows, farmers need to shear flocks to prevent them from overheating in their thick winter coats and to reduce the risk of flystrike.
This is a particularly painful and gruesome condition caused by flies laying eggs in the fleece and maggots feeding on their flesh.
As prey animals, sheep frighten easily and the shearing process can be extremely traumatic. The animals are restrained, often pinned between the legs of the shearer, in awkward positions and flipped on their backs.
Although the government advises shearers should be professionally trained, it’s not a legal requirement, and as the shearers are paid by the number of sheep they shear, the incentive is to rush through the shearing – increasing the risk of injury to the animals.
Exposé uncovers animal cruelty on sheep farm
A heartbreaking exposé in 2018 revealed just how stressful the shearing process can be and how poorly some shearing contractors handle the terrified sheep.
Workers were filmed punching frightened sheep in the face, slamming their heads into the floor, violently beating and kicking them, and throwing them off the shearing trailers.
And when the sheep panicked, the shearers used even more force, stamping, standing and kneeling on their necks and stomachs. It’s disgusting to think of any animal being treated so appallingly, let alone one as gentle as a sheep.
Aside from wool shorn from live sheep, the fleece of slaughtered lambs, ewes and rams – otherwise known as skin wool – is also used in textile manufacturing.
It’s hard to say for sure what percentage however, purely because it’s so difficult to trace the origins of wool fibre.
Most, if not all is sold abroad, along with leather skins, but who knows how much comes back to the UK.
Don’t be wooly about animal suffering, read these next:
- Suffering in plain sight: The UK lamb and sheep industry
- Exposing the reality behind live animal transportation in the UK
- Intensive egg farming: The ‘untold suffering’ of the UK’s 14 million caged hens
Why sheep farming poses an ecological threat
British Wool, formerly British Wool Marketing Board, is an industry-led marketing organisation that promotes wool as an all-natural, eco-friendly and sustainable product.
Yet they fail to recognise that the processes involved in rearing, cleaning and ‘processing’ sheep and their fleeces are anything but natural.
Pesticides, nitrogen compounds from fertilisers, urine and faeces all impact the environment and lead to noxious soil erosion.
Pesticide baths to control sheep scab and parasites such as ticks, lice and blowfly are frequently used and find their way into soil and groundwater.
Although carcinogenic arsenic hasn’t been used since the 1950s, it is still found in soil today.
Such pesticides pose many health risks to humans, with nearly 25 million cases of unintentional pesticide poisoning occurring in the agricultural industry across the world each year.
Synthetic alternatives to wool – whether from sheep, goats, alpacas, rabbits or even camels – have in the past failed to match the ‘real thing’ in terms of biodegradability.
But thankfully, new products free from plastic, petrochemicals and animal cruelty are on the rise.
These include Tencel (or Lyocell) made from wood cellulose, hemp, organic cotton, soya bean fibre, linen, bamboo, woocoa (coconut and hemp fibre) and Nullarbor (created by bacteria fermenting liquid coconut waste from the food industry into cellulose).
Although many people, even some vegans, see sheep farming as the ultimate in free-range farming, this facade obscures the stark reality of the hardships they face and signals a nature-depleted landscape.
Unlike fur which has been banned by many fashion brands, feathers and down are still in high demand.
Here are the best vegan down alternatives to keep you warm.