SHEEP farmers are returning to the controversial practice of mulesing because buyers are refusing to pay more for their fleece.
Mulesing is the surgical removal of wrinkled skin around the breech of the sheep, which protects it from the debilitating and often fatal consequences of flystrike.
The practice is branded "barbaric" by animal activists, who last decade championed a global boycott of Australian wool until the practice was replaced with chemical sprays, mechanical clips and selective breeding to remove the wrinkles - a vestige from American Vermont merinos imported in the 1880s.
Wool industry leaders in 2004 hastily agreed to phase out mulesing by 2010, but the promise was later downgraded to an "ultimate longer-term aim".
Since 2008 farmers have been invited to abandon mulesing voluntarily in a bid to court a few anti-mulesing fashion brands, including Country Road and Abercrombie & Fitch.
But prices haven't changed and woolgrower Lee Fletcher, who runs 6000 unmulesed merinos in northern NSW, said some farmers were now returning to the more cost-effective practice.
"I understand everyone wants to get everything cheaper, but when the industry said it would phase out mulesing there was no reward for that . . . and there was no real reduction (in earnings) for the ones who hadn't stopped," he told The Australian on his farm near Walcha, 320km north of Sydney.
"You've got to get some benefit back up the line but PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) just moves on to another cause."
Claire Fryer, campaign co-ordinator for PETA Australia, which spearheaded the celebrity-studded mulesing boycott, said individual farmers should bear the financial burden of "doing the right thing".
"The wool industry's had plenty of time to implement humane methods of flystrike control. The debate's been going on for years now and if they had invested into moving into selective breeding (in 2004), they would have had no trouble meeting the deadline."
Mr Fletcher said New England woolgrowers were struggling with drought, and flooding the market with new lambs they couldn't raise. "Last year my average selling price for a lamb was $140. (This month) I sold some for $44 and some for $33," he said.
Australia produces 30 per cent of the world's wool but 85 per cent of global exports, mostly to China.
Wool Producers Australia president Geoff Power acknowledged some farmers were returning to mulesing, which he described as "a very cost-effective and simple way" to protect against flystrike.
Mr Power said merino farms were vastly different and there was no short-term solution to flystrike that would work in every setting. Selective breeding could eventually solve the problem, he said, but progress was slow and costly.
Industry research group Australian Wool Innovation has invested $26 million in flystrike research since 2005.
Mr Power said 70 per cent of mulesed lambs were treated with painkillers, although PETA's Ms Fryer said the painkillers wore off quickly and mulesing wounds took up to four weeks to heal.
Ms Fryer suspected some farms were falsifying their paperwork, a concern shared by Mr Fletcher, but Mr Power said farms were audited at least every five years, and he assumed the small number of false statements were genuine mistakes.
Mr Fletcher, who mulesed for 30 years before breeding the wrinkles out his stock seven years ago, said the boycott campaign hurt the whole industry, regardless of whether farmers mulesed.
"I hated (mulesing) and I hate seeing it done. People don't realise a certain amount of sheep are mulesed and then . . . days later, they'll die," he said.
PETA's campaign was backed by celebrities such as actress Toni Collette, US singer Pink and tennis ace Martina Navratilova.
Both Collette and Pink withdrew their support, complaining PETA had misled them about the efficacy of the alternative methods.
A Melbourne University study of three Victorian farms published last year found unmulesed sheep treated with the chemical dicyclanil resisted flystrike as well as unmulesed ones, but still retained large amounts of faeces and urine in their fleece. Sheep treated with clips were seven times more likely to be flystruck.
Read more on The Australian.