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The facts

Lamb and sheep in Australia are for the most part, reared outdoors where they graze in open paddocks. Lamb/sheep farming is referred to as an extensive industry (compared with conventional egg, chicken meat and pig farming which are all intensive industries) and is generally not associated with the same welfare issues related to animals kept in intense confinement.¹ Nevertheless, there are several animal welfare issues associated with lamb/sheep farming. These include:

    • Painful procedures such as castration and tail docking which are performed without anaesthesia and pain relief
    • Muelsing – this involves cutting flaps of skin from around a lamb’s bottom and tail to create an area of bare, stretched skin. Because the scarred skin has no folds or wrinkles to hold moisture and faeces, it is less attractive to blowflies, which makes sheep less susceptible to flystrike. (Most lambs raised for meat are not mulesed)
    • Issues associated with live exports – long-distance transportation by boat as well as the treatment and slaughtering of animals in overseas destinations

In addition to the issues highlighted above there is the issue of feedlots. Currently around 15% of Australian lambs are ‘finished’ in feedlots. This means they spend the last part of their lives (usually around 6-8 weeks) in a feedlot facility. In feedlots lamb and sheep are kept in pens and fed a grain based diet to ensure they reach a specific weight before slaughter and to provide consistent meat quality. Most of the almost 700 feedlots in Australia are accredited under the National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme which means they need to adhere to a set of standards and are audited on a yearly basis to ensure they do.

According to the RSPCA there are, potentially, some serious welfare problems associated with keeping lamb/sheep in feedlots. These include:

  • The restriction on the ability of lambs/sheep to move around
  • Lack of adequate shelter from the extremes of weather (especially heat)
  • Problems associated with manure buildup and wet manure
  • Problems associated with handling of the animals, mixing of unfamiliar animals, dust levels and feed management

Other issues with feedlots include the widespread use of antibiotics and growth hormones and the health effects on the lambs/sheep of the switch to a grain-based diet from their natural diet of grass.

 What are the alternatives?

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The facts

Organic food is grown and processed without the use of synthetic chemicals, fertilisers, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and with a focus on environmentally sustainable practices. Certified organic produce that carries the stamp or logo of one of the seven Australian Accredited Organic Certifiers has met the organic standards (see below) and is audited annually to ensure compliance with these standards. Lambs and sheep raised within certified organic farming systems must be:

  • Able to roam and graze freely – Feedlotting is prohibited
  • Able to perform natural behaviour
  • Fed certified organic feeds
  • Free from growth hormones or antibiotics
  • Tail docked before 10 weeks of age

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The facts

The other alternative to conventional lamb and sheep is referred to as either free range, grass-fed/finished and/or pasture-fed/finished. While there are no legally binding definitions for these terms, they generally mean the same thing, which is that the lamb and sheep graze on grass in paddocks for their entire life and they are not ‘finished’ in feedlots. Most grass/pasture-fed and free range lamb and sheep is also free from growth hormones and antibiotics (but to be sure you need to check with the individual producer).

Only a very small proportion of grass/pasture-fed and free range lamb/sheep has been accredited by a third party accreditation scheme.
At present, the Humane Choice label (run by Humane Society International) is the only scheme that sets standards for free range/pastured lamb and sheep in Australia. The Humane Choice standards are similar to the organic standards in that they prohibit feedlotting and the use of antibiotics or growth hormones. Mutilations, such as muelsing and tail docking are also not permitted.

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Highest animal welfare choices:

  • Certified organic and accredited free range (grass-fed/finished and/or pasture-fed/finished) lamb/sheep products are the best choices
  • Look for the following logos:

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Next best:

  • Accredited free range or grass/pasture-fed lamb and sheep
  • For products labeled free range that are not accredited, speak to the retailer or producer directly to find out about farming methods used

Questions you can ask the retailer/producer include:

  • Are the lambs/sheep finished in “feedlots”?
  • Are the lambs/sheep treated with antibiotics and growth hormones

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  • Many of the large and some of the smaller supermarket chains carry certified organic lamb
  • Specialty health food stores
  • Organic butchers and butchers specializing in free range meats
  • Farmers’ markets: see to find markets in your local area
  • See our Where to Buy page for for stockists and online retailers


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