Ex scientist Jim Watts says there is a genetic solution to mulesing

Merino sheep. Photo: File
Merino sheep. Photo: File

Former CSIRO research scientist Jim Watts believes there is a genetic solution to mulesing and that producers can breed sheep that are naturally flystrike resistant.

It has been known since the 1930s that producers can breed merino sheep that is smooth bodied, without any wrinkle that doesn’t need to be mulesed, Dr Watts said.

“The CSIRO their researchers did this good work proving that you can genetically breed a plain bodied sheep, back in the 1930s,” he said.

“It just happens that mulesing was one of those ad hoc things that came in around the same time and was favoured over the breeding solution.”

Dr Watts said mulesing is a very painful operation for the animal.

He believes New Zealand’s move to ban the practice was a good initiative.

“I think what Australian merino producers could be doing is grasping this concept of breeding sheep that don’t need to be mulesed,” he said.

“I’d prefer for us (Australia) to just get on and breed the sheep rather than having to legislate for it.

“Because it’s all doable and available and it’s up to the individual grower what decisions they make for their business.”

Dr Watts said the clean bodied, Merino sheep that doesn’t need mulesing actually grows the best quality wool.

“You can breed a merino sheep that’s very plain bodied sheep, with no wrinkle on it and is quiet resistant to any form of flystrike,” he said.

Dr Watts believes one of the main drivers for farmers continuing mulesing is because they are chasing fleece weight from the sheep.

“By having wrinkle, it increases the surface area of the sheep for growing wool and increases their fleece weight...,” he said.

Dr Watts said losing fleece weight means less bales of wool coming from the property, but believes sheep producers can get a nice combination if they go down the breeding solution path.

“You don’t have to go plain bodied and lose fleece weight, you can plain bodied and gain fleece weight. You’ve just got to have the right recipe for doing it,” he said.

“There is a ram out there in available numbers for people to switch over if they so want to.”

Dr Watts said he doesn’t think Merino wool growers realise that if they take the policy of zero tolerance to skin wrinkle on the sheep and they can grow more wool.

Not only can they grow more wool, but it is better wool, easier to shear and more lambs, he said.

“They just haven’t cottoned on to it. I think there’s this overarching fear that there going to lose fleece weight, which isn’t true,” Dr Watts said.