From mulesed to nonmulesed — the Cathles story

Ian and Helen Cathles, 'Cookmundoon' and 'Cooradigbee', Wee Jasper, NSW

Why we changed

We aim to ethically produce a quality, superfine merino wool that is in demand. The impetus to stop mulesing when we did came from the strong animal welfare push by some extreme groups. Although we had been using pain relief for mulesing, we could see that, eventually, consumers would withdraw their support for any product that does not meet their ethical standards, so we had to find a way to make nonmulesing successful. For us, ceasing to mules was not a trial.

Our farm enterprise

Our enterprise is in a high-rainfall zone (receiving 900 mm of annual rainfall) on the southwestern slopes of New South Wales on the edge of the Brindabella National Park, 80 km northwest of Canberra. The pasture is predominantly native grasses, clovers and medics, plus a small dryland lucerne area. Today, we lease out the majority of our land. Along the limestone valley floor, we run a self-replacing flock of up to 3000 superfine merino sheep, with 40% of our ewes joined to terminal sires. Our enterprise also includes a tourism component, with accommodation and a licensed cafe.

'Cookmundoon' had been mulesing sheep since the late 1950s. Before this, Ian and his brother would spend 2 days each week checking sheep for flystrike throughout the 9000-acre property. The terrain varies from steep gorges to narrow river flats, and the paddocks varied from 300 to 1000 acres — the average micron was 19.5. When mulesing was introduced, this practice dramatically reduced the incidence of flystrike and saved 4 person-working-days per week. A trial showed that the mulesed mob was 100% free from flystrike, whereas the nonmulesed mob had up to 2% strike each week.

A number of things have changed since then that helped us to stop mulesing:

  • Our sheep average 16 micron.
  • We continue to cull any sheep that gets flyblown, lowering the risk.
  • We now buy only from nonmulesed studs, ensuring that there are no inherent fly attractants.
  • A range of new chemicals are available today that are technologically advanced.
  • A smaller workforce is available today, making it imperative to fine tune all husbandry practices.
  • We were lambing in the autumn when we stopped mulesing (although we have now returned to spring lambing).

What we tried

Before ceasing to mules, we trialled rams from two studs in another tablelands zone to see whether we could increase our wool cut without sacrificing any health or wool style attributes. Lambs born to these rams were 7 times and 11 times more susceptible to flystrike than the control group sired by rams from our long-term stud source, a local stud that used the same flystrike culling process as we did. That was an expensive but very valuable lesson.

Our first steps when we stopped mulesing were to use chemicals on the most vulnerable sheep. As all our older sheep were mulesed at that time, we concentrated on the lambs, spraying them with CliK® as we released them from the marking cradle. We sprayed down their backs, from the head to the tail and down the breech. We continued to monitor the lambs closely. It was a wet spring and summer that year, and we were very concerned about potential flystrike.

The second year, we treated the lambs in the same way, and also sprayed the hoggets again down the backline and the breech with CliK®. Underpinning what seems a very simple system was (and continues to be):

  1. strict worm-monitoring program — we test regularly for worm burden, and seek advice from our adviser on drench cycles and which to use, considering our flock's worm history. The worms our sheep deal with are predominantly barber's pole worm and black-scour worm, along with some brown stomach worm and liver fluke
  2. the long-term practice of culling sheep that are flystruck.

Monitoring is a major factor in success. To know what is happening with your sheep — to anticipate what could happen and see any change as it begins, rather than when it is a disaster — makes all the difference. Monitoring is the one factor that would apply to all sheep, regardless of type, terrain or location. The question then is how to do this economically. We are not in a pastoral zone, so we are able to integrate this without too much difficulty or on the way to other jobs.

New problems

We have had a new problem with the ewes getting flystruck down the back of the udder. We are not sure whether this is a result of not mulesing or simply the season. However, we now keep a close eye on the ewes every year between lambing and weaning to treat any struck ewes. In the past 10 years, this has happened twice.

Neighbours who stopped mulesing when we did had considerable problems attributed to the explosion of capeweed, causing wet, dirty rears on their lambs. These farmers returned to mulesing within a few years. (Editors note: Capeweed is often blamed for these signs, when in reality it is usually down to exposure to large numbers of scour worm larvae on the pasture. Formulating a good worm control program often resolves this issue. Visit  paraboss for more information.

The program we have settled on

In summary, we:

  • continue to cull flystruck sheep
  • apply preventive chemical backline, and breech chemical after marking and as hoggets
  • in a wet season, closely monitor ewes for udder strike, and spray if needed — depending on how extreme the seasonal challenge is, these ewes are not always culled
  • regularly monitor all sheep for worms, and use capsules in December or January — depending on the year and our available time.  (Editor's note: Capsule use at this time of the year is aimed at controlling Barber's Pole worm, which is active in warm, moist summers. In most parts of Victoria, such an approach is unnecessary).

How successful is it?

We have been very pleased with the outcome, and our entire flock now is nonmulesed. There is growing interest in the purchase of nonmulesed superfine and ultrafine wool, with small premiums currently being paid.

Any issues still to resolve?

Issues to resolve are now far broader than mulesing to meet our aim 'to ethically produce a quality, superfine merino wool that is in demand'. The general public requires, as a base starting point, ethical production systems across all our farming and grazing practices. So the issues to resolve are the same as always: to continually improve what we do and how we do it, researching and using the best technology available at the time.

Australian Wool Innovation survey

Australian Wool Innovation has been surveying wool growers about management practices that have enabled them to declare their flocks as being nonmulesed (NM) on the National Wool Declaration (NWD). The survey results, by Geoff Lindon, are now available to aid other producers to transition their flocks to NM status. Early indications are that there is no 'one size fits all' approach that can be recommended. Each producer has developed a tailored program using one or more of the available tools, taking into account their own flock's genetic susceptibility and the environment of their farm — that is, the flystrike risk and pressure.

This example from Ian and Helen Cathles, which has proven to be readily integrated into their management calendar, is just one of the approaches that can be used. Wool producers considering the move to do away with mulesing have a variety of tools to use, including:

  • genetic selection, both within their own flock and by their ram source
  • adjusting the timing of shearing and crutching
  • using chemical protective applications
  • promptly treating struck sheep
  • ensuring that tail docking is done correctly
  • using pain relief products, as appropriate
  • paying attention to worm and dag control.

When you do make the change, ensure that you complete the NWD to further protect the reputation of your flock and of Australia's wool producers.

For more information, contact your consultant or veterinarian, or visit flystrikelatest and flyboss.

Page last updated: 19 Jul 2021