Young lambs, at only a few days of age, often have their tails docked. Many people, other than farmers, are unaware that lambs, and sheep, would normally have tails that hang to, or just below, their hocks.
Why do Lambs have their Tails Docked?
Lambs have their tails docked primarily for two reasons. Long tails tend to accumulate feces, particularly when lambs are on rich spring grass and have softer stools than usual. This attracts flies and can cause a deadly condition known as fly strike. If they are to be kept for wool the feces that stick to their tail also gets on their legs and this makes for a dirty fleece, lowering its value. As such tail docking is done to prevent health problems (animal welfare) and for economic reasons.
How are Lambs Tails Docked?
photo source - Elastrator tool, showed with the handles tied so the tool is open and stretching a rubber band as it would be put on the tail.
There are several methods of docking a lambs tail, one involves a using a heated docking iron that cuts of the tail and cauterizes the blood vessels at the same time. Several other tools employ different means of crushing the blood vessels and cutting off the tail. Another method is the elastrator which applies tight rubber bands to the tail, causing it to be deprived of blood and fall off in a few days.
Is Tail Docking Painful?
Yes, the lambs do feel pain when their tails are docked. They show immediate signs of pain when their tail is docked and probably feel pain for a short while afterwards too although animals typically do not have ways to express prolonged pain like humans do. The elastrator probably has the least pain in regards of long term pain because the area becomes numb. It is possible that lambs whose tails have been docked by other means feel pain for at least a day. Studies in rats show that young animals do feel pain, they just do not show the signs of it.
© by author - she is bleeding because of just giving birth, her tail would have been docked when was only a few days old.
Is Tail Docking in Lambs Cruel?
Fly strike is a horrid death, so when tail docking is done to prevent this even worse problem it might be considered the lesser of two evils.
If done incorrectly the tail is too short, and this can put the sheep at risk for problems such as a prolapsed rectum. Also it should be considered that the tail does provide some protection to the rump area from cold weather, as such leaving a slightly longer tail might be considered a good idea in colder climates.
One thing worth noting is that some breeds of sheep, such as the Icelandic sheep, have naturally shorter tails that do not require docking. As well hair sheep, by their very nature, do not require their tails to be docked. Some buyers for lamb do not them to be altered by having their tails docked (or wethered), as such if the lambs are going to be sent for slaughter rather than kept for wool, in some cases they can be spared the earlier trauma of having their tail docked.