Evaluating the welfare of extensively managed sheep

Plos One - Carolina A. Munoz, Angus J. D. Campbell, Paul H. Hemsworth, Rebecca E. Doyle

Type: Research Paper
Knowledge level: Advanced

Farm Table says:

It is near impossible to assess individual ewe needs in a flock of thousands, but a practical way to identify sheep at risk could be to perform a hands on inspection of a sample of the flock when they are already in the yard for other procedures.

What is the problem?

This study by researchers at the University of Melbourne is currently the largest welfare assessment of extensively managed sheep in Australia. Its aim was to establish benchmarks and thresholds for farmers to work towards in the care of their sheep to improve/maintain ethical standards.

What did the research involve?

The lead researcher (Munoz) examined 6100 ewes, and the principle researcher (trained by Munoz) examined 100 of the ewes. This was spread across 32 farms in Victoria, with a random sample of 100 ewes from each farm.

The ewes were examined across 6 categories:

  • body condition score (BCS)
  • fleece condition
  • skin lesions
  • tail length
  • dag score
  • lameness

The scoring was performed at the time of pregnancy screening and again at weaning, which are deemed critical points of time for the sheep. The sheep were assigned on a point scale system in each category e.g. a score of 0 being no evidence of faecal staining and 5 being very severe dag on the breech area and on hind legs and/or below level of hocks.

What were the key findings?

  • 1% had poor body condition score (outside the range of 2.5-3.5)
  • 9 % had poor fleece condition (bald patches, lumpiness when parted, ectoparasites
  • 8% had skin lesions (cuts, open wounds, old wounds,abcesses)
  • 9% had severe to very severe dag score
  • 7% had signs of lameness
  • 7% had tails docked too short (vulva and anus were not covered/ shorter than 3rd palpable joint)
  • 3% of cases needed further/immediate care. Further care was defined as any sick or injured ewe that would benefit from further inspection and/or intervention. Common issues requiring further care: moderate/severe lameness or foot related issues, BCS < 2 and active dermatophilosis or broken wool.

Issues with maintaining sheep welfare included:

  • difficulty in identifying welfare compromise in large flocks and
  • difficulty of decision making about when and how to manage ewes that need further attention.

Final comment

This paper did not establish welfare benchmarks but did recommend that no more than 2% of the flock should need further care at any time. The creation of strategies such as decision trees on actions to take in various circumstances could be developed to help the decision-making process i.e. How to treat simple issues such as hoof over growth and abscesses; or how to reduce ear lesions. Poor sheep welfare can also have a compounding impact on profitability through low pregnancy rates and/or low lamb survival rates.


This paper was summarised by Mia Courtney (Agricultural Sciences Student – La Trobe University) and reviewed by Nickala Best (PhD Student – La Trobe University). Learn more about Mia and Nickala here.

2019 - Australia - Plos One - Carolina A. Munoz, Angus J. D. Campbell, Paul H. Hemsworth, Rebecca E. Doyle
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