Best of OP – The Importance of Tail Docking Lambs

Ever had a rotten tooth pulled? I have, and it smarts a bit. But would I rather that tooth was still there, or that it abscessed and dumped toxins into my bloodstream? Not really. And that’s essentially the case in favor of docking most lambs’ tails shortly after birth. “But Bill!” you protest. “A lamb’s tail is natural, and your rotten tooth was the product of years of bad human decision-making -- namely your decisions to eat chocolate and not floss often enough.” Actually the lamb’s tail is just as unnatural as a rotten tooth. We put it there, millennia ago. Shortly after humans domesticated sheep, we started to choose ones with long, fat tails because we liked eating fat in those days. As with nearly everything that we have done to alter animals through selective breeding, we took it a little too far, and arrived at the point where the vast majority of sheep cannot lift the full length of their tails. Then we bred sheep to have wool rather than hair. Wool is much more absorbent than hair, which is mostly self-cleaning. As a result, there’s a constant risk that the wool on the tail can become soiled with urine and dung and remain moist. This creates the perfect breeding ground for flies. Here's the mess that this sheep made because it couldn't lift its heav

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4 thoughts on “Best of OP – The Importance of Tail Docking Lambs

  1. From what I have read about domesticated animal selection, traits often come “bundled.” For example, there is the decades-old Russian research on foxes selected only for their docility that then began to show a collection of other traits–color variations including spots, floppier ears, etc. So long tails in modern sheep breeds most likely came with other traits humans selected for (fleece quality, longer breeding periods, twinning, etc.). There was an attempt (in the 1950s, 1960s?), to breed a tail-less Dorset (from one naturally born without a tail), but it failed and the research was abandoned.

  2. This is probably the best article I have ever read on tail docking. Nice to see some logic applied to this practice. Thanks!

  3. Hi Oogie,

    I think many of the primitive British breeds like yours, Shetlands, Scottish blackface, and even the Swaledales, etc., got less selection pressure for the fat tail and more for survivability. Generally speaking, these are probably more similar to some of the Scandinavian breeds, having come over with the Norsemen.

    There are plenty of hill, fell, and mountain sheep flocks in the UK that do not dock tails. They usually use the primitive breeds. They also enjoy a climate that’s a little less favorable to blowflies than what we usually see in the humid regions of the US. They have our humidity for sure, but fewer hot days when blowfly populations really explode. And of course, the hill flocks are at elevations where the temperatures are even cooler than the arable land, and where there’s a nearly constant wind.

  4. Unless you have a breed where it is mandatory to not dock tails. Black Welsh Mountain sheep with docked tails are unregistered unless there is a specific veterinary reason that it was required for a specific individual animal. Routine docking of tails will result in your expulsion from the registry and you will be forbidden from ever owning registered sheep again.

    However, there is a reason, Black Welsh do not get the manure build up of other breeds. In 21 years of raising them I have had a grand total of 1 animal who built up manure on the long tail and got fly strike. She was treated and then her and her offspring were all culled. That was early on in our breeding of these sheep and I’ve never had another one since then.

    Fly strike resistance is a breed trait that must be preserved and part of that is letting the sheep potentially develop manure build up and using that as a culling criteria.

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