Maryland's Tail Docking Policy
Past, present, and future
Who would have thought that we could spend the past five years talking so much about the backside of a sheep? And continue to do so. To outsiders, this tail docking controversy seems ludicrous, but to those of us affected, it is a complex issue with many sides, considerations, and opinions.
History of policy
Let's start with a little history. The Maryland 4-H Youth Development Program has had a tail docking policy in place for 4-H sheep since 2003. Though research-based, Maryland's policy was developed in response to the public's growing concern for the prolapsed lambs they were seeing at fairs.
Maryland's 4-H tail docking policy was announced a year in advance to foster understanding among those affected by it and to give breeders and youth exhibitors ample time to comply. Since its inception, the policy has undergone several changes in an attempt to make it as fair and consistent as possible. In fact, the Maryland 4-H program has always strived to apply the policy fair and consistently across all venues and with all youth.
Originally, tail docks had to be lifted with a #2 pencil while the sheep was in a free-standing position. Both market lambs and breeding sheep were covered by the original policy. In 2006, breeding sheep born before January 1 of the current year were excluded. This year, all breeding sheep are excluded from the policy; however, they still must show no signs of surgical docking or prolapse.
In 2005, the policy was changed to reflect the current rule which requires the tail (dock) to be at least 0.7 inches long, as determined by an approved measuring device. This change made the policy more scientifically-based because it is based upon an "objective" measurement versus a subjective lifting of the tail.
In fact, the primary basis for the Maryland 4-H Tail Docking Policy derives from a 2003 multi-state study published in the Journal of Animal Science that established a scientific link between short tail docks (> 0.7 in.) and the incidence of rectal prolapses in lambs fed high concentrate diets, the types of diets typically fed to 4-H lambs, especially market lambs. An earlier study by the University of Minnesota found the same link in feedlot lambs, while a more recent (2006) unpublished study in Texas failed to establish the same link.
Maryland's 4-H Tail Docking Policy has divided many of those affected by it. Those who support the policy are quick to point out that longer tail docks help to prevent the occurrence of rectal prolapses. They are right. This is exactly what has happened. There are far fewer 4-H lambs that have prolapsed since this rule was put into place. It shouldn't take a rocket scientist to realize that removing body parts (extra coccegeal vertebrae) is going to change something, probably for the negative.
Those who oppose the tail docking policy claim that prolapses are more the result of other factors, such as genetics and diet. They are also right. Rectal prolapses are a complex problem, with many contributing factors: sex, diet, age, implanting, genetics, and short tail-docks. In fact, anything that causes a lamb to strain (e.g. coughing, diarrhea) increases the probability that it will prolapse, especially if it is a ewe lamb. In this article, I discuss the various "causes" of rectal prolapses in lambs:
Why so much argument about a sheep's tail?
While the ancestor of most modern sheep breeds (the Mouflon) has a short, woolless tail, centuries of selection (for wool production) has resulted in sheep with longer, thicker, woollier tails that can get nasty if the sheep gets a case of diarrhea or is housed in wet, dirty conditions. Consequently, it is considered a good management practice to dock (shorten) the tails of most sheep. The exception is hair sheep or sheep of the Northern European rat(short)-tailed variety (e.g. Finn, Icelandic). Many ethnic buyers also prefer "unblemished" lambs that still have full-length tails.
Docking helps to prevent fecal matter from accumulating on the backside of the sheep. It keeps them cleaner and drier. Wet wool is an ideal environment for blow flies to lay their eggs and develop into maggots which will feed on the living flesh of the sheep. Left unattended, this is a cruel way for a sheep to die. This is the primary reason why sheep are docked: to keep them cleaner, to prevent fly strike.
Sheep tails are not docked to make them look better because that is merely an opinion, not a fact. I, for one, prefer sheep with tails or at least a tail long enough to waggle. Sheep tails are not docked to help the ram's penis find the ewe's vagina. This is not necessary.
On the other hand, I don't know any sheep shearer who wouldn't prefer to shear docked sheep, and I'm sure most lamb processors would prefer not to buy or slaughter lambs with long, wooly tails, especially if they're caked with feces or other foreign matter.
But, a tail that is too short may also predispose a sheep to fly strike. Contrary to popular opinion, the sheep's tail actually has a purpose, which is to deflect feces away from the body. It can still do that with a tail stub that is left long enough. On
Tail measuring device
Short tail docks
an extreme docked lamb, soft feces will dribble down the backside, once again inviting blow flies.
A longer tail will also protect the sheep's private parts from weather extremes. This may not sound important for barn-raised sheep or sheep raised in mild climates, but in many production environments, this is an important consideration and animal welfare issue. The standard for tail docking around the rest of the world is to leave the tail stub long enough to cover the vulva of a ewe and the anus of a ram.
The most common complaints about Maryland's 4-H Tail Docking policy are fairness and consistency, especially between states. Maryland and West Virginia have 4-H tail docking policies whereas neighboring states (Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Delaware) do not. Exhibitors and sheep owners in these states can dock their sheep as short as they like.
Maryland 4-Hers feel that they are at a disadvantage when their longer-docked lambs have to compete against shorter-docked lambs. While I think it's idiotic for a judge to discriminate against longer-docked lambs, I cannot deny that this happens. It can also be difficult for Maryland 4-Hers to find quality lambs to buy that have been docked in accordance with Maryland and West Virginia's 4-H tail docking policies.
For these reasons, many people see a national tail docking policy as the only means to resolve this controversial issue. While I don't disagree, I believe that this will prove to be a difficult task. Such a policy would need to be uniform, easy-to-understand, and easy-to-enforce. While I believe USDA (administrator of the 4-H program) may have the authority to implement a national 4-H policy regarding sheep tails, I'm not sure who would have the authority to impose a tail docking policy across all show sheep (short-tail docking is not a problem amongst commercial sheep).
The solution (?)
Call me naïve, but my hope lies more with education. As an extension educator, it is my responsibility to help producers and youth understand the consequences of extreme tail docking and other management practices. I believe that teaching ethnics is just as important as teaching youth how to raise and show sheep. If there's even the slightest possibility that short tail docking is detrimental to the lamb's health or compromises its welfare in any manner, why should it be done?
We could continue to argue about the main cause(es) of rectal prolapses, but we know that short tail docks are at least a contributing factor. We know that there is NO scientific justification for removing the tail shorter than 0.7 inches. Short-tail docks are a fad. Fads come and go, and it's time for this one to go. I'm old enough to remember when we left wool on sheep and blocked them out. It was another fad, and it eventually went away.
I encourage producers and youth (who dock their own lambs) to follow the recommendations of the American Sheep Industry Association, American Veterinary Medical Association, and American Association of Small Ruminant Practitioners.
Their recommendation and that of many other agricultural organizations is to dock sheep tails no shorter than the distal end of the caudal tail fold. When this is done, there is a 99 percent probability that the lamb's tail will be 0.7 inches or longer at the time of the show. Since many 4-Hers do not raise their own lambs, I encourage them to only patronize those breeders who value the welfare of their animals and dock according to the recommendations of the above organizations.
The bigger picture
Finally, I think it's important to remind everyone that if the U.S. sheep industry doesn't address this tail docking issue, somebody else may. Animal rights and welfare organizations are poised to "attack." If we can't defend this practice amongst ourselves, think of the "field day" well-financed animal activists will have. They may seek to pass legislation that tells sheep producers IF and how they can dock their lambs' tails. And first on their agendas will likely be small states like Maryland and Delaware.
This article was written in 2007 by Susan Schoenian.