Suffering in plain sight: The UK lamb and sheep industry

Read Time:   |  24th April 2017

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Justin Kerswell reports on the suffering inflicted on Britain’s sheep and lambs in Britain’s lamb and sheep industry…

Suffering in plain sight: The UK lamb and sheep industry

Before moving to the countryside, Diane (not her real name) told me she knew little about farming. Like many of us, she didn’t initially see past the pastoral, picture-box countryside image. However, it didn’t take long for her to see suffering behind the hedgerows.

“Living in the countryside has made me aware of the routinely harsh conditions and sometimes brutal treatment endured by many farmed animals. These are not animals in factory farms. They are in fields and barns, but their suffering can be severe”, she told us.

Diane witnessed sheep on their knees or lying down to eat grass because their feet were too painful to stand on. Abandoned to the elements, many were in advanced stages of disease and were clearly in distress. At first she appealed to the farmers directly, but either they gave her weak platitudes or the animals would mysteriously vanish in the coming days. Some were simply taken from the fields and dumped into barns to die.

Diane asked a farmer what treatment he would give to a sheep who lay in the field with a painful prolapse. He replied “None. She’ll have to take her chance.” The sheep was moved to a barn by forklift, where she died during the night after an unknown amount of suffering. In other words out of sight, out of mind.

Take their chance

Diane couldn’t put the sheep out of her mind and began to document and help when she could. After a while she gave up reporting what she saw to the authorities, as nothing seemed to be done. Although leaving a sheep to suffer is against the law, from what she could tell action was rare, so Diane decided to take matters into her own hands.

Suffering in plain sight: The UK lamb and sheep industry

One day she was told that a sheep had been alone in a secluded field for several weeks. “I walked into the field and was able to catch her without much difficulty – a sign of her poor state of health. She was in a horrendous condition. One ear had rotted away and the other was badly infected. Her wool was crawling with maggots. I put her in a wheelbarrow and took her by car to the vet, who said she had been in pain and suffering for many weeks. There was gangrene where the ear had rotted and she was suffering from a disease called Orf. She was grinding her teeth in pain and the vet had no choice but to put her to sleep.”

Another time Diane found many sheep in a dreadful condition inside a darkened shed on a barren floor. Some could not stand at all, while one struggled to move around with a front leg so lame she could not put weight on it; most of her wool was gone and her body was covered in sores. Feeling helpless, all Diane could do was offer a literal crumb of kindness by throwing pieces of Rich Tea biscuits to them. The farmer simply said again they “…had to take their chance”.

Bleak mid-winter

Diane got in touch with Viva!, after hearing we were investigating the British sheep industry, to share her experiences. We were shocked at what she had found, but we were also increasingly horrified by what we uncovered.

Viva! investigators have visited several livestock markets. While the fluffy image of lambs in the spring sunshine is one that comes to mind for many when they think about sheep farming, the reality is very different for many. To make sure that the supermarket shelves are stocked with lamb meat in time for Easter, an increasing number of sheep are forced to give birth during the bleak mid-winter. The figures are sobering: around a million lambs die prematurely of hypothermia each year.

Suffering in plain sight: The UK lamb and sheep industry

At one market we saw tiny orphan lambs shivering in the February cold. While sheep may not be factory farmed, they have not escaped the manipulation and selective breeding that characterises the very worst of farming today. Although, like humans, sheep only have two teats, it is not uncommon for ewes to give birth to three lambs – and it was these we saw abandoned to their fate that cold winter morning at market.

As so-called prey animals, sheep are especially susceptible to stress. Market – with unfamiliar smells and deafening noises – is a terrifying ordeal. For some it was even worse. Two were isolated in a pen. The result of what looked like a botched de-horning had left weeping wounds on their heads. The side of one of the sheep was an angry mess of sores. They smelt as if they were rotting alive. Although we reported our concerns, we were simply told that “appropriate action would be taken” – whatever that meant.

What we found on farms was equally disturbing. Viva! was the first animal group in Britain to film the mutilations suffered by most piglets. Lambs suffer similarly. Tails are docked, usually with a rubber ring that causes part to wither and drop off. Supposedly to combat fly-strike, the reality is that only a tiny percentage of animals in a flock are affected. Often the mutilation is done to maintain a ‘traditional’ look.

There is worse still for males. Largely done for convenience, castration by the same method is widespread, even though it can result in acute and lasting pain. As our investigators filmed the procedure repeatedly, they asked a farmer if it hurt. He said that they say it doesn’t, but they were wrong. “It bloody does!”, he quipped, but carried on regardless.

Tellingly, even though over 15 million sheep and lambs faced the horrors of the slaughterhouse last year, there is no licenced pain relief specifically for sheep. This despite painful lameness being endemic in British flocks. The reality is that the suffering of Britain’s sheep is hidden – and seems to largely go untreated. However, matching the rise in veganism, Brits are losing their taste for lamb. Even when considering imports, 58,000 tonnes less sheep meat was consumed in Britain compared to a decade ago. Check out Viva!’s lamb page at

Viva! is a charity working to promote veganism and to end animal suffering. Justin Kerswell is Campaigns Manager and Deputy Director for Viva!

Written by

Vegan Food & Living

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