AUSTRALIA'S largest wool buyer, China's Sunshine Group, has demanded Australian wool growers abandon mulesing.
The request, the first by a Chinese processor, was made in a letter to the Federation of Australian Wool Organisations.
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Until now, calls for Australia to end mulesing have been led by European and US retailers and fashion brands.
"In the last three years, increasing requests have been made from our major international customers to provide product as made from non-mulesed Australian wool due to the strong pressure of the animal liberation movement," Sunshine Director of Technology Center, Cao Xiuming, said in the letter.
"It is envisaged that these requests will be become more frequent.
"Being a principal Australian wool user, we urge the Australian wool industry to recognise this fact and adopt practices which will ultimately satisfy the needs from its customers.
"It is our hope that new measures can be introduced sooner rather than later to enable the Australian wool users to be free from these concerns."
Sunshine, which buys more than 60,000 bales from Australia annually, produces up to 32 million metres of fabric and 3.5 million sets of garments.
Sixty per cent of Sunshine's output is exported, which includes European and US-branded product.
Australian Council of Wool Exporters chairman and head of Queensland Cotton's wool trading division, which is a major buyer for Sunshine, Michael Avery said he wasn't surprised with the Sunshine plea.
But he was unsure how the demands would affect the market.
"To date, there has certainly been no auction premium for unmulesed wool,'' Mr Avery said.
The warning from the Chinese Sunshine mill coincides with increasing concerns among Australian wool growers that they will be unable to meet the December 2010 deadline to end surgical mulesing.
It's a view shared by Australian Wool Innovation chairman Wal Merriman and AWI director David Webster.
Last week, Mr Merriman told The Weekly Times that there was a growing list of retailers who wanted unmulesed wool.
However, he said AWI had no legislative ability to stop wool growers from mulesing sheep.
Mr Merriman said retailers in Europe and the US were struggling financially and that wool's retail future lay in Asia.
Mr Merriman said he was continuing to mules his lambs.
And, in Western Australia, David Webster was reported as telling growers that he was sceptical of the decision to end mulesing.
"This whole thing was a disaster right from the start and it is absolutely unquestionable that the majority of growers cannot run livestock successfully without mulesing,'' Mr Webster was quoted as saying.
Fellow West Australian grower and WoolProducers executive member Max Watts said Mr Webster's comments won a lot of support among his audience.
Mr Watts said the mulesing issue would eventually depend on market forces, particularly the price difference between unmulesed and mulesed wool.
Mr Watts said he believed AWI should keep growers informed of what the market was saying, particularly the attitude of AWI's 200 retail partners and what they were demanding.
Leader Products director Bruce Dumbrell was also critical of AWI's stance on the anti-flystrike or mulesing clips currently manufactured and retailed under licence by Leader.
Mr Dumbrell said AWI directors continue to talk about mulesing using the pain-relief treatment Tri-Solfen, but there had been little or no talk about the availability of the clips.
Meanwhile, AWI director Laurence Modiano, who also heads Europe's largest wool processor, G Modiano Ltd, has written to UK retailer Marks and Spencer calling for a rethink of its opposition to mulesed wool.
Mr Modiano claimed the mulesing decision and demands from retailers such as Marks and Spencer for an end to mulesing would have a detrimental environmental impact in Australia.
Mr Modiano said the decision was forcing producers to quit sheep in favour of other, less-satisfactory, land uses.
And, while he acknowledged that clips won't be suitable for all lamb types, he believed AWI, which had invested millions of dollars in the clips, should be doing be more to promote their availability as an option to those producers wanting to cease mulesing.