Most sheep breeds have naturally long tails, which the vast majority of shepherds “dock,” or make short, usually by placing a small rubber band around the tail. The rubber band is tight enough that it cuts the blood circulation off from the part of the tail beneath it, which makes the tail atrophy and eventually fall off. This practice is rejected by all animal rights and many animal welfare activists as a cruelly painful mutilation.
Since I arrived at farming by way of animal rights and animal welfare literature, I too believed that tail docking is a cruel practice, so I committed to raising sheep without docking tails. The easiest way to do that is by keeping sheep with naturally short tails that require no docking, so I bought Icelandic sheep. However, last winter I got a free flock of Cheviot-Texel ewes, and they had long tails that were not docked. When their lambs were born in the spring, I was a good animal welfare practitioner and did not dock the lambs’ tails.
The result of this management choice was that last spring, summer, and fall, I had forty sheep running around the farm with huge globs of manure stuck to their tails, getting bigger by the day, which is exactly why shepherd’s dock sheep tails. When sheep are kept on stands of vegetative actively growing grass, rather than being nice little dryish pellets, their poop is pretty soft, and the wool on the long tails catches bits of the poop, and over time the poop, like an icicle, accumulates. The real danger is flystrike — when flies lay their eggs in the poop and the larvae hatch and the maggots start eating away at the poop, and eventually the sheep.
I did not have to deal with any flystrike from pooped up tails last year, but the sight of those tails disgusted me, both because it was literally disgusting, and because I was disgusted with myself for putting the sheep in such a precarious situation. There are ways to manage the poop build up, such as feeding dry hay out on the pasture to help dry up the poops, or “crutching” the sheep, that is, clipping the wool from around their backsides and tails, but each requires either cash or labor at a time when both are in short supply.
One could easily argue here that the interest of the animal (in being free from pain) should trump the economic and labor interests of the shepherd. However, one could just as easily argue (see below) that on balance, the brief pain, if any, is in fact trumped by the future freedom from the risk of flystrike and infection.
After last year’s experience, it seemed to me that it was actually more cruel to leave the tails long than to dock them, so this year I went over to the dark side and docked the tails.
I try to be honest and forthcoming about the welfare of the animals I raise, so I keep a log of welfare concerns that come up on the farm on its own page here on the website. If you check out that page you will see that even though I did it this year “lamb tail docking” is not listed. Why not? Because I found that the “cruel,” “barbaric” practice simply isn’t. The reaction of the lambs to having the rubber bands placed around their tails has ranged from indifference to flopping around in pain and discomfort for fifteen minutes before either ignoring it or having the pain subside.
In order that I could accurately gauge — as best as one can — the degree of pain and suffering the lambs’ experienced, I sat and watched the first few lambs that I did from the moment I applied the band to the moment they stopped reacting to it, and while certainly I did not like seeing the lambs standing up and then throwing themselves down to the ground, up and down, flopping around and looking at their tails, in the end, which was quick, I realized that the pay off, for both the shepherd, and the lamb, was worth it. Basically, after fifteen minutes, for the lamb, the whole thing was over, literally. Not a single lamb has shown any indication whatsoever of having any awareness of the band around the tail or any residual pain after the initial shock of its placement, if there were any reaction at all, wore off.
I should note that I am placing the rubber bands in the “proper” place, that is where the caudal folds on either side of the tail come together, which leaves a short tail that covers the anus of both sexes and the anus and vulva of females. A “show” dock is extreme and completely removes the tail, exposing both the anus and vulva, which has been proven to make the sheep colder in the winter, and to make the sheep more susceptible to prolapse. What the animal rights and welfare activists don’t tell you about lamb tail docking at the proper length is that at two or three days old, the diameter of the tail at the point where the caudal folds come together is quite small. I was actually concerned that the band would not be tight enough to cut off the circulation to the bottom of the tail. What happens though is that the band is tight enough to do so, but just. The tail grows and gets thick above the band, but not below it. I think as the tail part above the band grows, it puts more pressure on the band, tightening it a bit more, but this doesn’t happen until long after the feeling in that part of the tail is gone. I do believe that placing the band up at the top of the tail head, even on a two or three day old lamb, would cause substantially more pain, but I have not done it or seen it done, so I cannot be certain.
To be thorough, I should also note that tail docking in the winter is different than tail docking in the spring or summer. In the winter, it is cold and there is very little danger of infection at the site where the tail finally drops off, or flystrike at that site if the nub is a bit bloody (the nubs that I have seen have had no blood on them). I have not yet docked any tails in warm weather, so I cannot comment on the difference between the seasons whether the welfare concern is increased due to the increased risk of infection or flystrike. I suspect it is not as I cannot imagine that that risk is even as high as it is if one leaves the tails long.
As usual, I am pissed off at the animal rights and animal welfare activists for leading me astray, for, in fact, putting my sheep at risk last year. Lamb tail docking — mutilation in the rights and welfare parlance — is simply not cruel, at least as far as I can tell.