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Thinking about it

I dreamed I was showing M a whole bunch of handknits I owned: they were terrible, tacky, hairy things and I was indulgently smiling and admitting their flaws, but pointing out they were still worth wearing. M just shrugged and said “inethical”. Dream-bethini felt she needed to think about that. Awake-bethini agrees.

So I’ve been looking into it and I think I’ve reached a stage where I don’t think I’m going to buy Australian merino anymore. This post has been in draft for a long time because I’ve been reluctant to talk about this stuff: it’s about ethics and that can be divisive. But I’m even more reluctant to self-censor, and I think ethics are so fundamentally important to living well that I think we should talk more about them. (I buy “we”, I mean “me”, grammatical issues aside.)

If you’re a knitter and you’ve been online in the past ten years, you’re probably familiar with this issue and it’s an unpleasant one. In Australia, sheep have big, big problems with flystrike: this is when a blowfly lays eggs on a sheep, the eggs hatch, and the maggots eat the skin/flesh of the sheep. Australian merino are really vulnerable, because of the way their skin folds and hangs around the bum, making snug little crevices that you can’t shoo flies away from (especially if you’re a sheep). The maggots hatch and get to work in less than a day. Those poor bloody sheep, can you imagine? The best solution we’ve got so far is mulesing, where you take a lamb and slice its butt so that there’s no more folds, just a shear bald area. It’s a pretty awful procedure, and, like most things we do to babies, done without anaesthetic.

Here’s the problem, as I see it: in Australia, un-mulesed merino are almost guaranteed to get flystrike. Flystrike is horrific. Currently, our best defence against it is horrible. There is a lot of research and breeding and experimentation going on to phase it out, to breed sheeps that have smoother bottoms and so on — but right now, if you’re buying Australian merino, the sheep was almost certainly mulesed. So maybe we shouldn’t be growing merino in Australia. Maybe if you can’t do it without cruelty, you shouldn’t do it. In New Zealand, Merino generally aren’t being mulesed anymore, and breeders are focusing on developing “bare breech” (smooth-arsed) varieties.

Okay, so the next question I had for myself was this: am I okay with buying the wool if nobody gets mulesed? As I dug deeper, I began to think not. Most sheep reared for wool don’t get to live out their natural lifespans eating tussocks and growing wool: once they hit an age where the wool output begins to taper, they’re culled — usually sold to animal food manufacturers or for live export. Unless you’re buying from a small-scale farmer who can guarantee a decent life for the animal all the way to the end, you’re probably putting money into the meat industry. Which is probably fine if you already buy meat: but I don’t and I’d rather not.

I knit because it’s fun and challenging and interesting: none of those is a suitable reason to hurt a sheep. There are so many other things to knit with, plant and man-made, and that’s where I’m going to put my efforts and my cash.

This isn’t a zero-impact solution. The manufacture and processing of man-made and plant fibres can have massive environmental impact. But I’m doing my best: for me, not hurting animals is a high priority and so that’s what I’ll target for now.

As ever, awesome resources to be had on Ravelry: the Veg*n Craft*n Group has a really good list of humane/eco-friendly yarn suppliers, and loads of thorough, insightful and respectful conversation about this stuff.

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