Welfare of sheep & shearing in the UK

This page aims to give a brief summary of the welfare legislation & codes of practice in the UK relating to sheep, including information about shearing.  Links are also provided to much more detailed information.

Thi sinformation  on the Woolsack website should be regarded as a source of information only and not recommendations by anyone involved with Woolsack. 

In 1965 the UK commissioned an investigation into the welfare of intensively farmed animals and this led to the Five Freedoms for farm animals that form the basis of current UK legislation regarding farm animal welfare.  The Five Freedoms have also been adopted by organisations around the world including the World Organisation for Animal Health and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

  1. Freedom from hunger or thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour
  2. Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area
  3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
  4. Freedom to express (most) normal behaviour by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal's own kind
  5. Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering

What does this mean in practice for sheep farmers?

Well, for a start, these are some of the publications I've had to read and follow and some of the certificates & authorisations I've had to obtain - including sitting my first formal assessment for many years!

No one is able just to buy a few sheep and put them on some land they rent or own. 

First you have to have a Holding Number (known as CPH), you have to have a Flock Number, be registered with Animal Health, and you can be inspected at any time, without notice in certain situations.  All sheep have to be tagged and every time sheep are moved between farms a Movement Document has to be completed givng full traceability of every individual sheep.  You must keep a Flock Register with details about your flock including births, deaths, movements on and off the farm, tag details, numbers of sheep.  Also you have to keep a Veterinary or Medicine Book that gives details of every treatment a sheep receives, the batch number, expiry date and withdrawal period for fleece, milk or meat.  For transporting sheep you need a movement licence.

More information about this on the National Sheep Association website.

Here are links to some of the detailed UK Government publications concerning sheep welfare.

Caring for Sheep & Goats  This gives more details about the legal requirements for those keeping sheep

Code of Recommendations for the Welfare of Livestock: Sheep

Farm Animal Welfare Committee  FAWC advises the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales on the welfare of farmed animals.

Farm Animal Welfare Council - Farm Animal Welfare in Great Britain: Past, Present and Future

Sheep and goats identification, registration and movements

Keeping Sheep  Find out how to register your holding, record and report animal movements, and about any restrictions after animals arrive on your holding.  Note, if you have even one sheep as a pet, you are the person legally responsible and legally required to follow all UK legislation.

Issues that have been misrepresented by certain campaign organisations & individuals.

Shearing Regulations are covered in section 2.1 of Caring for Sheep & Goats: Shearing

These include:  Shearers should be trained, competent and experienced, or supervised by someone who is. Don’t cut the skin, and treat any cuts immediately.
You should remove the fleece from all mature sheep at least once a year. You shouldn’t shear in winter, unless your sheep are housed.

The British Wool Marketing Board provides training to give shearers the skills to shear sheep safely & efficiently.  Approximately 1,000 people attend BWMB shearing courses each year, either to learn afresh or to brush up and perfect their shearing skills.  Link 1 and Link 2

The vast majority of sheep in the UK will be sheared for the first time when they are over a year old, in the late spring or summer after the year they were born.  Some long-wool breeds need shearing twice a year, but if this involves shearing in winter they will be given appropriate shelter until their fleece is long enough to protect them from the weather.  Some sheep that are housed during the winter will be sheared when they first go into the housing to prevent them overheating inside.

This link is to a video from Natural Fibre Company that shows a small flock of Gotlands being sheared and also includes some information about processing wool.

This link is to a blog post, Shearing 101: What happens?, written by a farmer to counter myths and misconceptions by documenting an accurate account of one afternoon in a shearing shed in Lancashire, UK.  Contains facts, photographs and video clips.

This clip from Addicted to Sheep shows shearing for a larger flock - don't miss the bit at the end where the sheep express their joy at being relieved of their heavy winter coats!  Note that the hill sheep being sheared here do produce a lower value fleece than the finer British fleeces that are turned into knitting yarn.  Britain does however produce some of the best carpet fleece in the world!


Another shearing related issue that needs addressing since it has been implied on social media in July 2016 that the British Wool Marketing Board (BWMB) is draconian regarding the law requiring British wool to be sold through the BWMB.  While the 1950 law still applies there are important exemptions - see page 6:

  • Any farmer can sell fleece to handspinners for processing by hand
  • Certain rare & minority breeds are exempt anyway
  • Any producer/entrepreneur requiring wool for artisanal or craft purchases can apply to BWMB for exemption up to a limit of 3000kg.  Exemption is normally given and indeed reports from projects that have applied for exemption show the BWMB to be helpful and supportive.  This link is to the Cambrian Wool Project and the background to the project, including BWMB support.   This link is about BWMB supporting a Wensleydale wool project.


Castration and tail-docking In the UK these are covered by the Protection of Animals (Anaesthetics) Act1954.  See page 17 here.  For both procedures, "Farmers and shepherds should consider carefully whether tail docking and/or castration within a particular flock is necessary". 

The reason for castrating male sheep is to prevent injury through fighting when they reach puberty.  Males that will be sent for slaughter before sexual maturity are unlikely to need castrating. 

The reason for tail docking is to prevent potential fly strike from dirty tails.  Many sheep in the upland areas of the UK don't need short tails to prevent welfare problems and some breeds have naturally short tails.

Farmers can only legally apply rubber rings for these procedures, without anaesthetic, in the first week of life.  For older lambs over 3 months only a Veterinary Surgeon can castrate a lamb.  Documentary programmes on television such as BBC Lambing Live series show these procedures being performed by farmers.  The lambs respond in different ways varying from looking surprised, standing still for a few minutes, squirming, running to mum for a suck or being seemingly oblivious to the procedure(s).  The guidance is that the welfare gains for the lambs must outweigh the transient discomfort or pain.

Slipe wool

There is also a misrepresented issue relating to wool from sheep that have been slaughtered for meat - Slipe Wool Production.  See 4.4 of this document for the true fact that Slipe wool constitutes approximately 5% of world wool production.  Far from the 'most' used to describe slipe wool from fellmongers on social media in July 2016.  More useful information here including, "The BMWB only handles fleece wool but their statistics for export of greasy and scoured Wool includes Skin Wool." (page 15).  More information about UK fellmongers here.  There is no indication at all that British wool knitting yarn includes slipe wool.



Finally it cannot be stated clearly enough that a procedure known as mulesing is never used for sheep in the UK.  Also cross breeds of sheep in the UK known as 'mules' have nothing at all to do with the mulesing procedure.  In sheep farming, the term Mule is used to refer to a cross between a lowland ram (usually a Bluefaced Leicester) and a purebred upland (or hill) ewe.