Sheep are kept for their wool, skin, meat and milk. On the face of it, you think that they have suffered the least from the growth of factory farming - here free range actually means free range. Yes, sheep mostly still live in the open in conditions that are fairly close to their natural environment. They eat mostly a natural diet and are allowed contact with other sheep without being overcrowded or caged. When young, most are protected and nurtured by their own mothers - something denied to most factory-reared animals. Compared to battery hens or factory farmed pigs, they have a good life, or do they?

Having watched huntsmen maraud across the countryside on the pretence of protecting sheep from foxes, you'd be forgiven for thinking these must be special creatures indeed. Precious even. But it's all a sham and four million sheep die each year of cold, hunger, sickness, pregnancy complications or injury and one million lambs die of exposure within a few days of birth.

Sheep are suited to the dry, rocky land of hill country, being prone to foot diseases when kept on damp, low land. Despite their inherent unsuitability for living on low-lying land, much of the Midlands has been given over to sheep rearing as has Sussex, Kent, Devon and many other unhilly counties. The life led by these creatures is considerably different to those reared on the uplands, such as in Wales.

Subsidies and science have allowed the size of the British flock to increase from about 34 million to 45 million animals from 1982 up to 1998. The UK is the EU's biggest sheep meat producer (380,000 tonnes in 1998), followed by Spain and France. However, almost 40 per cent of UK sheep meat and live sheep were exported in 1998 as the British taste in lamb has been declining since the 1980's.

Some 43 per cent, or £488 million out of £1.1 billion in 1998, of the income of sheep farmers in Britain comes from the public purse, from taxation, from you and I. The government stated in 1994 that: "Most hill farmers and many lowland sheep keepers would be incapable of financial survival if subsidies were withdrawn."

All red meat producers receive Government subsidies of one kind or another. No other industry is cushioned in this way. It is ironic that a trade which is damaging and cruel receives such support.

Normally, sheep breed once a year and have one or two lambs. The ewe (female sheep) naturally comes into season in the autumn or winter and the five-month pregnancy ensures that most lambs are born in the warmer conditions of spring when food is plentiful. But farmers, lured by the higher prices paid for Easter lamb, change this natural breeding cycle so that lambs are born earlier. Many never survive the cold. The ewes are made to come into season early with the use of hormones or by being kept indoors and controlling the amount of light they receive - the decline in daylight hours being responsible for triggering oestrus.


The most profitable produce of British sheep is their lambs - wool coming a distant second, producing between five and 10 per cent of total income per ewe - so they are under pressure to produce more and more offspring. Some may have three or four lambs a year - leading to more intensive, indoor rearing because of their inability to cope with this many lambs in cold weather.

Lambs are often slaughtered at about four months old, although some are killed as young as ten weeks and others up to 15 months. The meat from older sheep is called mutton and is less popular than lamb so is mostly used in processed foods. Ewes are able to live to the age of 15 or so but are slaughtered after four to eight years.

Sheep have been bred to grow more wool than nature intended. Naturally, they have an outer covering of hair, with the wool making up just a fine undercoat. Domesticated breeds have been "improved" to increase the wool and to reduce the coarse hair. Hill-breeds still have quite coarse coats as protection against the weather but breeds such as the Merino have only a fine, soft fleece. Domesticated sheep have to be shorn every year before the weather becomes too hot and uncomfortable and it can be a stressful experience for animals not used to being handled.

About 27 per cent of UK wool comes from slaughtered sheep, usually lambs.

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