Tail docking lambs: Advice, legislation and methods compared

Tail docking is routinely carried out to avoid soiling of the fleece around a lamb’s rear and thus prevent fly strike – a painful condition where flies lay their eggs in the wool, resulting in maggots eating into the skin.

However, the process of tail docking itself is a stressful and painful one. Therefore, it is a procedure that could come under increasing consumer scrutiny due to animal welfare concerns.

Below, we weigh up the different methods of tail docking, review current legislation, consider whether or not farmers need to dock and look at best practice if you do.

See also: How farmers are benefiting from contract rearing ewe lambs

Do I need to tail dock?

Because docking is a painful procedure, it should only be carried out when there is a substantial risk of fly strike, and in line with legislation, says vet Gethin Roberts, of George Farm Vets.

He also advises only docking after lambs are a day old. “I would want to avoid the first 24 hours because of the likelihood of disrupting the ability to suck.

“You could end up with failure of passive transfer of colostrum and also increase the mis-mothering risk,” he says.

Whatever method is used, lambs should be vaccinated against clostridial disease prior to lambing, as the procedure leaves a possible port of entry for bacteria.

It’s also advisable to castrate and tail dock at the same time to limit the stress of multiple handling.

What are the methods available?

The three legal methods of tail docking are:

  1. Rubber rings This is the most widely used method. A constricting latex ring is applied to the tail. Blood supply is cut off to the tail below the ring, resulting in tissue death and this part of the tail being shed.
  2. Tail iron A blade heated by a gas burner is used to sever and cauterise the tail. The tail is removed in one action.
  3. Clamp and surgical removal A clamp is applied to the tail to crush the bone and kill the nerves. The tail is left to die off and is then cut off a few days later using hot irons. This is a hangover from when farmers used to cut tails using a knife (which is now not allowed). This method is now rarely used.

Each method has its pros and cons (see “Pros and cons of main tail-docking methods”).

What does the legislation say?

The legislation is not overly clear on the exact requirements for tail docking.

The Mutilations (Permitted Procedures) (England) Regulations 2007 states:

“When the method used is the application of a rubber ring or other device to constrict the flow of blood to the tail, the procedure may only be carried out on an animal aged not more than seven days. When any other method is used, an anaesthetic must be administered.”

The main messages that are applicable to all farmers, regardless of whether they are in an assurance scheme, are:

  • There must be sufficient tail to cover the vulva or the anus. The tail can only be cut shorter in the case of emergency, disease or injury following consultation with a vet (and administration of anaesthetic).
  • Anaesthetic must be used when using hot irons/clamps, whatever the age.
  • Rubber rings must be applied in the first week of life. Anaesthetic is not needed.
  • Rubber rings are not allowed to be used after seven days of age, both with or without anaesthetic (this is a “grey” area in the legislations – some interpret the wording as saying it is allowed after seven days with an anaesthetic. In the main, the general belief is that it is not allowed).
  • Cutting the tail with a knife is prohibited.

Assurance schemes like Red Tractor and QMS also follow these standards.

Tail docking in sheep – Red Tractor and Quality Meat Scotland assurance standards


Animal age



Rubber ring

First week of life

Competent stockperson

Anaesthetic not required

Hot iron/clamp

Up to two months

Competent stockperson

With anaesthetic and recorded in medicine records


Any age

Vet only

With anaesthetic and recorded in medicine records

Any method of tail docking (QMS)

Over three months

Vet only

With anaesthetic and recorded in medicine records

Key considerations when tail docking

Lamb age and whether ewes are lambed indoors or outdoors are the main factors influencing docking method.

Ringing in the first week of life is likely to be attractive to indoor-lambing flocks.

In comparison, hill farmers – who tend to gather lambs for castration and docking at about four weeks old – are more likely to opt for hot irons.

Whatever age hot irons are used, to meet legal requirements, the procedure must be carried out with an anaesthetic.

The practicalities of giving an anaesthetic to older lambs out on a hill may be difficult, but with the consumer’s gaze well and truly on farming, not adhering to animal welfare requirements could do the industry serious harm.

Best-practice animal welfare

Legislation might state anaesthetic is not needed when using rings on lambs under seven days old, but Mr Roberts believes the argument for using anaesthetic at this time is strong.

“Plenty of studies have shown it is a painful procedure. I would encourage farmers to use pain relief, whatever the age of tail docking,” he says.

He recommends that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are also administered at the same time as an anaesthetic when lambs are being docked from 24 hours onwards.

Although there are no NSAIDs licensed for use in sheep, their use can be permitted under veterinary guidance through the prescribing cascade, Mr Roberts explains.

Pros and cons of main tail-docking methods

Rubber rings




  • Easy-to-do, quick job on young lambs
  • Reliable method
  • Cheap
  • Safe – no operator risk
  • Tail can take three to four weeks to drop off
  • Produces carrion risk when tail falls off – could attract predators
  • Infection can occur before the tail is shed, as the ring cuts into the tissue – this can lead to infection or clostridial disease

Hot irons



  • Very quick
  • The blades cauterise the tissues and blood vessels, producing a clean and precise wound
  • Can collect tail immediately and dispose of safely (avoids carrion risk)
  • Can be used in older lambs
  • Practicalities of administering the required anaesthetic is difficult
  • Possible operator risk of burns/fire
  • Some evidence that cauterised tails may take slightly longer to heal

Clamps and surgical removal



  • Arguably nicer/neater looking tail is left compared with other methods
  • Practicalities of administering the required anaesthetic is difficult and can only be done by vet
  • Two-stage process – tail clamped and then has to be left several days before being removed using hot irons

Guide costs for tail-docking methods

  • Castration/tail docking pliers for applying rings – about £5
  • Rubber rings – about 1.5p each
  • Tail docking irons – about £350