A mother sheep sitting gracefully with her cute little lamb on the green grass.

Winter warmers: the cold facts about down, angora and wool.

Most people are shocked to learn the farming practices behind these common animal fibres.

Animals Australia

Animals Australia team

Last updated May 17, 2023

In preparation for the cooler weather setting in, stores are stocked with angora scarves, woollen mittens, feather quilts and down coats. These products are designed to keep us warm, but who is being left out in the cold?

There is a dark side to winter fashion and comforts that we’ve been insulated from: the truth about the cruelty that sheep, rabbits, geese and ducks can be subjected to in the production of these products.

The lowdown on down

Down is the layer of soft and tiny feathers closest to a bird’s body. For ducks, geese and other birds, it does the job that nature intended, keeping them warm during the long, freezing winter months. Many people are completely unaware of the cruel reality for ducks and geese in the ‘down’ production process.

Most down sold in products in Australia comes from China – a country with few animal protection laws. Down is most often ‘harvested’ through a process called ‘live-plucking‘, which is as disturbing as it sounds: struggling geese and ducks as young as 10 weeks old are held down, potentially causing their fragile wings or legs to break in the process, and then have their feathers ripped out by the roots.

Their delicate skin is often torn during this violent defeathering, and the wounds may be stitched up with long needles, without anaesthetic. This ‘harvest’ can occur up to six times a year, until the traumatised birds are sent to be slaughtered.

Some companies claim they source their down through ‘ethical harvesting’, where down is collected after the birds naturally moult, but this ‘production’ method makes up only a tiny fraction of the market.

The most ethical, safest option is to not use down at all – and, thankfully, that’s easy to do with synthetic alternatives readily available in most department stores. Outwear manufactures such as Columbia and Patagonia stock ranges of down-free products.

The agony of angora

Angora rabbits have been bred to have very long and soft fur, which is ‘harvested’ and turned into clothing and accessories like gloves and hats.

An investigation by PETA at an angora ‘farm’ in China, where 90% of the world’s angora is produced, exposed the brutal reality of this industry. The footage shows rabbits being tied down on racks then screaming as their fur is torn from their bodies by hand. After this traumatising ordeal, the rabbits are then crammed into small wire cages, deprived of anything that makes life worth living. They are kept there until their fur regrows, and in a couple of months the whole gruelling process will start again.

As a result of increased consumer awareness and concern about the cruelty of fur production, many retailers in Australia are pledging to adopt fur-free policies. Take the fur-free pledge here, and help shape a future where fashion is compassionate.

Wool: not so cosy after all

Merino wool is widely marketed with pride as a classically Australian product – but if consumers knew of the welfare implications for sheep in the wool industry, many would choose not to support it.

An ever-present risk to the welfare of wool-producing sheep in Australia is the prevalence of farms without adequate shade or shelter. Over ten million lambs are estimated to die before being slaughtered in Australia each year. Most of these vulnerable baby animals die within their first 48 hours of life due to preventable farming practices.

Lambs who survive are soon met by another harsh reality of being bred into the Australian wool industry. At six months old, sometimes younger, lambs can legally have their tails cut off, and the males can be castrated, all without anaesthetic.

Even more disturbing is the controversial practice of ‘mulesing’ – undertaken to reduce flystrike as these animals are not native to Australia. These lambs are restrained, and the wool-producing skin around their buttock and tail stump is cut off. Many of these young, sensitive lambs endure this without any pain relief. Their open wounds can take weeks to heal.

Shearing is also stressful for sheep — primarily because they are ‘prey animals’, fearful of human handling or being restrained. Annual shearing subjects them to separation from their flock, noise, forceful and often rough handling, and injury as cuts from the sharp shearing blades regularly occur. Shearing during the winter months is common, and particularly in southern Australia, newly shorn sheep suffer and some die during cold, wet and windy weather.

Breeding sheep can endure other invasive procedures such as ‘laparoscopic artificial insemination’, whereby a long metal rod is poked through the ewe’s abdomen to insert semen into her uterus. As with other surgical procedures, this can be done without pain relief. Once her production slows, she will be sent to slaughter, as the wool and meat industries are completely entwined.

Most people are surprised to learn about these standard practices sheep are forced to endure for industry profits. Thankfully, there are plenty of options for clothes, accessories and blankets that are kinder to sheep.

How to keep warm this winter — cruelty-free style!

Down, fur and wool don’t grow on trees — but cotton does! (Well, they’re more like shrubs … but the point is there are countless natural, cruelty-free alternatives to animal products out there.)

If you need some new items to brace the winter cold, you can help spare animals by taking the opportunity to be an informed-shopper. Stock up on warm and cosy synthetic and plant-based alternatives to fibres that come from animals – such as bamboo, modal, microfibre, Tencel (made from eucalyptus), ingeo (made from corn fibres), Primaloft and Microcloud.

All items in the Animals Australia Shop are made from animal-friendly materials and have been carefully selected to ensure they are kinder to people and the planet, too!

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To learn more about living kindly, order your free guide, ‘Join the Evolution’, today!