Woolly Watergate: The journalist that took on PETA

By Anna Jones
18th September 2019

When you slap ‘WOOL IS JUST AS CRUEL AS FUR’ on the side of a bus, you’d better hope the Farmers Guardian doesn’t see it. Because a journalist has just got it banned.

Alex Black, a business reporter on the agricultural trade magazine, complained to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) that the advert by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) was misleading, given that sheep need to be shorn in order to, well, stay alive.

The now banned advert
Credit: Farmers Guardian

The advertising watchdog upheld the complaint that shearing sheep – effectively giving them a haircut – is not the same as killing and skinning an animal for its fur (obvs). It has ordered animal rights group PETA not to use it again.

Thank goodness for journalists I say. Doggedly determined, stubborn contrarians. When we catch a whiff of injustice or just an inkling that something doesn’t smell right – we’ll pester and prod you until it’s either explained, proven or put right.

New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey did it with Harvey Weinstein. Woodward and Bernstein did it with Nixon.

“Are you seriously comparing this with Watergate?”

Well, look at it this way – did a journalist see something that didn’t look right and question it? Did their questioning lead to action? Then, yeah.

The Big Woolly Issue

Ever since fashion retailer Boohoo banned wool in its products back in February – and then immediately changed its mind again – I’ve been thinking a lot about sheep and shearing.

We live in an age of great angst and confusion about animal welfare. Good people wanting to do the right thing but getting themselves tied up in ethical knots. Boohoo’s backtrack is the perfect example.

As a sheep farmer’s daughter, the very idea that shearing could be deemed cruel is completely bonkers to me. But then, I was probably about six or seven-years-old when I first saw a sheep with maggots. Thousands of them buried deep in her wool, eating her flesh – slowly killing her.

I’ve known my whole life that a woolly sheep in hot weather is a cruelty. I wince when I’m out walking in July and August and see unshorn sheep panting in the heat, clinging to patches of shade.

PETA would argue that we have bred sheep to be excessively woolly and robbed them of their natural ability to shed their own wool. There’s some truth in that.

But that’s domestication – the creation of a symbiotic relationship between humans and animals. And our ancient ancestors just loved domesticating! They tamed the wolf and bred the dog to be our loyal companion. They broke wild horses so we could ride them.

Cats, cows, pigs and poultry have become dependent on us for their survival. And we look after them in return for many things – friendship, work, sport, meat, milk, eggs, wool. It’s a partnership we can’t walk away from. Be it a pet or a farm animal – we are inextricably linked.

Where I do have some sympathy with PETA is their central point about the cruelty that can occur during shearing. It’s not endemic and I despair at their melodramatic portrayal of it (anyone would think sheep are routinely getting punched in the face by sadistic shearers: “I’m getting paid to shear ’em but it’s just too much fun punching ’em!” Ridiculous).

But there is a discussion to be had here.

I’ve seen contractors being rough with my Dad’s sheep. Thankfully not often, but I have witnessed – on rare occasions – ewes being yelled at, yanked and kicked. And I hate it. It makes me really, really angry.

I said to Dad once, “Why did you let him do that? You wouldn’t let someone come and kick me, or even the car, would you?” He hates it too but shakes his head and says: “What can you do?”

What can you do?

And here’s the real issue – farmers have to get their sheep shorn. And sometimes contractors just aren’t available. When the weather’s dry, the shearing teams are working around the clock and you have to take whoever you can get.

In small rural communities, everyone knows everyone. Farmers don’t want to upset people, they don’t want to cause conflict. What if the shearers just got up and left? “Sod you then – shear your own sheep!”

The most important thing to a farmer is getting the flock shorn before the weather gets really hot. There’s a greater good to be aimed for.

Sometimes, the shearers are just plain exhausted. It’s hard to imagine the sheer stamina the job demands. These guys are bent over all day, sometimes working in blistering heat, wielding sharp clippers that are equally as dangerous to them as the sheep.

Just imagine having to shear 500 ewes, sweat dripping off your nose and brow, your back breaking – and this one ewe just keeps kicking and kicking. You’re trying your best to hold her but her hoof catches you in the face, pain shoots through your jaw.

She’s as stressed as you are. You can’t take any more and that’s when you lash out. I’ve seen this. I’ve seen good shearers lose it in a moment of frustration. There’s a difference between a good but exhausted shearer and a bad shearer who fundamentally lacks kindness and compassion.

What we really need to be doing is empowering farmers to speak up; to not feel afraid to say, “please don’t do that to my sheep”. We need to tackle the macho image that goes with the job.

Guess what? You can be tough and strong and still be kind to animals! There should be better and mandatory training for shearers; qualifications that instil a greater sense of pride and professionalism. And maybe we need to look at better ways of working – to relieve the pressure somehow.

This is the sensible debate we need to be having. The whole ‘wool is just as cruel as fur’ thing is a noisy distraction. I’m glad I won’t be seeing it on any more buses.

Me wrapping wool during shearing time

Thumbnail Photo by Sam Carter on Unsplash