Happy, Healthy Animals: A Holistic Approach To Animal Welfare

There’s nothing like a wooly jumper on a winter’s day, and even though the colder months are coming to an end, the sheep responsible for our winter knits are still out there. Here at TCS, we’re keen to learn as much as we can about the origins of everything we come into contact with – from our nutbutter to our knits – so we spoke with Nan Bray, shepherd, scientist and founder of White Gum Wool, about the animal welfare of the sheep whose wool we wear.

When we asked Nan to share her thoughts on animal welfare, she explained that happy, healthy animals help create a healthy environment, and vice versa.


I became interested in the slow food movement about ten years ago. Slow food is not just the absence of fast food, it’s about embracing all of what it takes – culturally, agriculturally, socially – to create food that is truly sustaining, satisfying and healthy.

My approach to processing wool – the slow wool approach – has taught me that many factors play into sustainable production.

It was a very organic process for me: coming to a realisation of the importance of animal welfare. When I started farming I was much more focused on environmental sustainability, but I eventually learned that sustainability is a holistic thing: when animals are healthy, so is the environment, and vice versa.

The stockman I was working with then had been a stockman all of his life. He was 75 when he came back out of retirement to help me, with the view to staying for a few months. We ended up working

together for thirteen years, and he taught me so much about building and cultivating empathy for the animals. It was a slow process of coming to understand that I was dealing with animals whose behaviour would change based on various factors: I began to understand what was motivating them.

Sheep aren’t particularly forthcoming, they don’t usually make sounds when they’re hurt–an evolutionary adaptation to avoid being preyed upon when they’re vulnerable–so understanding their needs is about really getting to know them. It took time on the ground, coming to understand that there’s a lot more to these animals than I had thought. From an idealistic point of view, I had a strong commitment to animal welfare as a concept, but it took me a long time to understand what that meant in practice.

I worked for about ten years trying to do things conventionally, with one exception: I refused to ‘mules’ the animals (a procedure carried out on lambs, which involves surgically removing a bit of their skin, at that time done without pain relief, in order to prevent flies landing and laying eggs in the animal). Mulesing was a procedure that I just couldn’t feel comfortable about, so I asked Davey if there was another way. He suggested jetting with a solution that deters flies, combined with mid-summer crutching to minimise dagginess.

The real pivot point for me came when we experienced our worst dry cycle, and everything fell in a heap. I didn’t have enough feed for the animals, so they ate everything in sight and the landscape looked awful. I had to buy feed, which is really expensive, and the animals weren’t as healthy as they would be if they were eating naturally.

The severe dry cycle lasted for three years, giving me a chance to try a number of things, none of which worked well. I realised I couldn’t just close my eyes and hold my nose and try to get past it.

I was working harder than ever, but the environmental quality, sheep health and financial returns continued to diminish. I realised I couldn’t go on growing wool the conventional way. Sometimes it takes a crisis for you to take action and make a change.

At that point, I decided I wouldn’t keep as many sheep, because I didn’t want to stay in the downward spiral I was in. I started to look around for research and ideas for how to move forward, and I found that if you want your animals to be as healthy as they can be, they need a lot of biodiversity in their forage.

Different plants have different pharmaceutical properties: sophisticated secondary compounds like tannins and alkaloids and terpenoids. Plants develop these secondary compounds as a sort of defence, so that if an animal eats too much of a plant it begins to feel nauseous. Our bodies – and those of all mammals – can connect the feeling of nausea to the novel compound most recently ingested. That’s why, when we get food poisoning, we’re automatically put off the food that our systems identify as having made us unwell. It’s called an autonomic reflex, you can’t overcome it. To a much milder degree, the animals are learning as they move through the environment how much of a certain plant they can eat, and that way they’re getting access to all of the nutrients they

It’s a co-evolution between grazing animals and plants, which works for the plants (because they get relief) and works for the animals (because they’re getting a range of pharmaceutical compounds that improve their health). Because sheep need that biodiversity, they’ll eat the shrubs and biodiverse plants first–grass is the last resort. If you have too many animals, they’ll decimate the biodiversity and then everybody is left with only grass and nobody is satisfied.

I realised that the animals need to learn where the biodiversity is, and it needs to be available to them when they get there. The way to ensure there is enough biodiversity is to reduce the number of animals to a level where the ecosystem can be maintained in a healthy, resilient state. I’m down to 25% of the sheep I used to have, and that allows the biodiversity to flourish. It was a real ‘aha’ moment to understand that the two issues I was most concerned with–animal health and environmental integrity –were flip sides of the same coin. I didn’t need to choose one at the expense of the other.

To help the sheep learn where the biodiversity is, I decided to try what’s known as “active shepherding”. I would go out with my dogs and guide the sheep across the property to the areas with lots of biodiversity, which are scattered around a production landscape like mine. The sheep taught me to make that process really slow, because sheep don’t graze forward fast. I spent hours on end, day after day, walking around the property with my sheep, letting them choose what to eat.

I knew in a macro sense where the biodiversity was, but I had no way of knowing what any individual animal would need. That was hard for me because with my science background I wanted to know what each animal would need, and what plants would supply it. I finally accepted that I didn’t need to know, only the sheep really needed to know.

Through the shepherding process I also learned a lot more about sheep social behaviour. They’re very social animals, with strong intergenerational connections. The pet lambs that I feed on the bottle are my babies, or more accurately, I’m their mama, until they die. I lost my eldest pet ewe Annie recently at the age of thirteen. Up until the day she died she’d follow me whenever I was with the flock. I’d turn around, and there would be Annie right behind me. If I

have that connection with them as a human, Imagine how strong the bonds they have between each other must be.

The social structure within the flock is incredibly powerful. It’s as though with their friends and relations at their backs, they are much more assertive. Most flocks of sheep spread out across the paddock, but my sheep sleep together, graze together, rest together, travel together. I have seen them form a ring around a ewe that was down to protect her from predators.

There’s a lot happening in the social structure of a flock. Conventionally, we wean them at three months, and the sheep stay in a sub-flock of animals of the same age. That isn’t how they’ve evolved to live, though. Like humans, sheep evolved to live inter-generationally: with their parents and their aunties and their uncles and siblings. Maintaining the social cohesion of a flock is an under-recognised element of animal welfare. The combination of having choice in their diet and having the opportunity for intergenerational connection really improved the wellbeing of my sheep.

One of the reasons I wanted to explore the new approach in terms of nutrition was in the hope of reducing intestinal parasites in sheep. Since I improved the access to biodiversity about 12 years ago I haven’t needed to treat my sheep for parasites. There’s a real benefit in getting nutrition right, and the knock-on effects improve the health of the sheep across all aspects of wool production.

The process of shepherding meant I became friends with my sheep, and a few years ago I made the decision – for purely emotional reasons – not to send my animals to slaughter any longer. I manage their old age and geriatric issues, and when they die I bury them in individual holes and plant a tree on their grave. I’ve developed a deep empathy for sheep that has come from getting to know them as individuals, with their different quirky personalities.

Understanding the nutritional needs of the sheep led to the things I now consider to be essential animal welfare issues: access to food choice through abundant biodiversity and maintaining the natural social structure of the flock. When you allow sheep to forage and live in the ways they’ve evolved – with lots of food choice and feeling safe within their family groups – the whole system just works. Sheep are happier and healthier, the environment flourishes, and the woolgrower’s life is easier and more rewarding.


If you’re interested in learning more about the work that Nan does on her ethical sheep farm in the Tasmanian Midlands, you can visit her website whitegumwool.com.au or follow her on Instagram @whitegumwool

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