UPSETTING IMAGES of rough handling of sheep during shearing have flooded the media after an exposé by animal welfare activists PETA.

Footage capturing incidents where workers were seen to cruelly handle sheep was gathered from 24 sheep farms across Scotland; in West Lothian, Fife, the Borders, Dumfries and Galloway, East Lothian, Midlothian and South Lanarkshire, and has since prompted the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to launch an investigation into the matter.

The short video gathering these incidents for distribution on social media suggested that sheep shearers were paid by volume, not by the hour, which PETA suggested would encourage fast, violent handling.

Responding, Scottish chairman of the National Sheep Association, John Fyall expressed concern at some of the images, but stressed the necessity of shearing as a matter of welfare: “Scottish farming wants to maintain its image as being one of the best producers in the world and we have to be confident that every farm operation we conduct is done with welfare and respect of animals as paramount at all times,” he said.

“The Scottish Sheep Shearing organisation have been swift to follow up this case and are taking the recorded material very seriously,” he continued. “The blame is being pointed at the contractors, but every farmer has a duty to make sure any operation on their farm is ultimately their responsibility. I must note that there are things in that video which are obviously not captured on Scottish farms but of course some of the scenes have raised concerns and the SSPCA will have to make enquiries."

Mr Fyall went on to suggest that some of the captured material was not all that it seemed: “Some of these pictures which appear obscene are actually caused by possible disease or fly strike – so the shearer can’t take the blame – but we need to be involved with the SSPCA and leave it to them to carry out a proper and impartial investigation.

“If there are issues which PETA feels we can improve on – bearing in mind 3.5 million sheep need sheared as a matter of welfare – we are happy to look at them. However, I am disappointed that PETA have sat with this material for months making sure it has been properly edited for maximum impact instead of approaching us directly while the issue was live, and we could have dealt with it sooner,” he said.

NFU Scotland’s Animal Health and Welfare Policy Manager, Penny Middleton commented: “NFU Scotland is currently investigating these claims and the validity of the videos as the images shown do not reflect the standards expected on Scottish farms. We would support action being taken against the individuals shown, if these images are indeed from Scottish farms.

“Animal welfare is of the utmost importance to Scottish livestock farmers and the industry prides itself on achieving high standards of animal welfare. The behaviour shown in the PETA videos is by no means typical of shearing in Scotland,” she insisted.

“Shearing is a necessary part of keeping sheep – without shearing the fleece becomes too thick and heavy for the sheep, causing it to overheat and can result in painful skin conditions. Shearing should be carried out calmly and carefully but to suggest that sheep should not be shorn is irresponsible.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson commented: “The vast majority of people working in farming in Scotland are wholly committed to the highest possible animal welfare standards. Scotland takes animal welfare very seriously and we are committed to the best possible standards of welfare for farm livestock.

“We have committed to raising the maximum available term of imprisonment for the worst cases of animal cruelty to five years. While it would not be appropriate for us to comment on individual cases, we would expect any evidence appearing to show cruelty to animals and livestock to be fully investigated and dealt with appropriately by the relevant enforcement agencies,” the statement concluded.