The bark of New Zealand's sheepdogs is indeed worse than their bite and it has proved to be very stressful for the sheep as they are herded into line for the slaughterman at the country's abattoirs.
That doesn't just worry animal lovers. It is also a concern for discerning diners, because it makes the lamb coming off the production line a bit tougher and less succulent than the premium meat on which NZ farmers have always prided themselves.
(...) The National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee is recommending that to reduce the stress, dogs should be banned from moving sheep from the holding pen outside each slaughterhouse to the killing area.
Chairman Peter O'Hara said that the animals were already pretty stressed after being trucked from the farm to the abattoir and being rounded up by a pack of barking dogs and forced to head for the slaughterman did not improve their condition.
Traditional abattoirs were not well designed and dogs were often needed to move the sheep along, he said. 'But now, it is certainly possible to design yards and races so that stock will tend to move of their own accord and don't need a whole lot of pressure.'
The committee's recommendation to Agriculture Minister David Carter follows news that a visiting delegation from the British supermarket chain Tesco - one of the biggest buyers of the 300,000 tons of New Zealand lamb exports every year - was concerned that dogs were 'quite aggressive' towards the sheep as they moved them to the killing area.
Silver Fern Farms, New Zealand's leading meat company, which exports to about 60 countries, has announced that it is phasing out the use of sheepdogs at its plants, in favour of humans waving sticks and rattles, in response to growing international concern about animal welfare.
'It's very sad in some respects, I think,' spokesman Brent Melville saud. 'It's the end of an era.'
Shepherds and traditionalists agree, seeing the move signalling the beginning of the end for the dogs that have been an integral part of the industry since New Zealand started sheep farming in the mid-19th century.
Shepherd Mick Petheram told the New Zealand Press Association, 'Sheep have had dogs around them from the day they were born. It's the New Zealand way.'
Without dogs, people would end up having to push the sheep physically, he said. 'I know from my experience - to shift stock, the frustration will build up and these sheep will be inhumanely handled.'
Dave Eastlake, secretary of the Meat Workers' Union, said, 'The sheep are brought up with dogs around them and they'll probably miss them when they're not there and they have a whole lot of people yelling and clacking little clackers at them rather than dogs, but that's not the way some market people see it.'
Bob Kerridge, of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said an untrained dog could stress stock, but those used in farming were generally well-trained.
'I can't imagine for one minute the quality of meat or stock is altered in any way, shape or form by use of well-trained dogs,' he said.