By Sue Ellis
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents
A row has been taking place in Australia over a controversial farming practice, where skin is sheared from sheep to protect them from maggot infestation.
Animal rights campaigners Peta believe mulesing is extremely cruel
Twelve months ago, most Australians had not heard of a sheep-farming procedure known as "mulesing".
But now thanks to a row between the world's largest animal rights organisation, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) and Australian wool growers, they have been brought up to speed pretty quickly.
Mulesing is named after John Mules, who developed the practice in the 1930s as a way to prevent what is known as "flystrike".
This occurs when blowflies lay eggs in the folds of skin around the sheep's back side. When this happens, the hatched maggots can eat the sheep alive.
Cutting off the loose flesh leaves an area of smooth, wool-free skin, which prevents maggot infestations.
The procedure is carried out using metal shears and no pain killers. But Ian McLachlan of Australian Wool Innovation, the industry's research group, said: "It's short-term pain for lifelong immunity and stops the sheep being eaten alive."
During the mulesing operation, there is no outward sign the sheep are in distress, but according to Temple Grantin, Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University: "Sheep are a prey species animal, and they tend to cover up the fact that they're hurt.
"They don't want to advertise to all the dingoes out there that they're injured."
Hormone levels indicate distress (Image: Animal Liberation)
"[But] if you go in and measure the sheep's stress hormones, they're off the charts."
Mulesing first came to the attention of US-based Peta last year when it saw a video of a sheep being mulesed.
Australian animal rights groups had been trying to draw attention to the procedure for years with little success.
But when Peta organised street protests and an international campaign to boycott Australian wool, people sat up and took notice.
One billboard showing graphic footage of a mulesing operation so shocked New Yorkers that it had to be taken down.
"Did your sweater cause a bloody butt?" ran the slogan, "Boycott Australian wool".
The campaign was effective and soon retailers like Abercrombie and Fitch, New Look, J Crew and Timberland were joining the boycott of Australian wool products.
Australia's ride to economic prosperity in the 1950s is often said to have been "on the back of the sheep".
Back then, wool was the country's biggest export. Today it makes up just 3% of the export trade.
Mr McLachlan is determined to put an end to the boycott
Even so, Australia still produces a third of the world's wool, so any boycott has an impact on the industry.
That is why Ian McLachlan decided to fight Peta's boycott in the court, claiming it is illegal under the Trade Practices Act.
The legal battle has been going on for six months and looks set to continue.
For Ingrid Newkirk, the head of Peta, it is all welcome publicity. "It's probably helped," she said, "by getting the matter discussed."
The row has caused a split among woolgrowers, some of whom disapprove of the large amount of money being spent on legal action.
Chick Olsson is one of them. He formed a breakaway group, the Australian Woolgrowers Association (AWGA), which believes in working to try to find a compromise with Peta on mulesing.
A pain relief procedure is one possibility (Image: Animal Liberation)
In fact, since the boycott started, it has been agreed across the industry to phase out mulesing completely by 2010.
Other alternatives - such as a chemical procedure - are now being tried out. But, in the meantime, the boycott stays.
The only way it will be lifted is if a pain-free way to prevent flystrike can be found.
Recently, Chick Olsson held talks with Peta in New York. He took with him news of a pain relieving spray that could be widely used within six months.
It could mean an end to the international boycott and, with a new public awareness about animal rights, an end to a controversial sheep-farming practice.
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 21 July, 2005 at 1102 BST.
The programme was repeated on Monday, 25 July, 2005.