NEW YORK — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which campaigns against the use of fur, is turning its attention to Australian-grown merino wool.

The group has kicked off a boycott of the Australian wool, saying a process called mulesing is unnecessarily cruel. It is used by Australian farmers to prevent sheep from being infested by a type of Australian blowfly, the Lucilla cuprina. The fly is known to lay its eggs in the often damp wool around the sheep’s anus and genitals. When eggs hatch, the larval state of young can burrow into the sheep’s flesh, a condition called flystrike.

Mulesing involves shaving the wool from the area and removing some of the merino sheep’s wrinkled skin and pulling the remaining skin tight. The tough, dried scar tissue that remains is less susceptible to egg-laying. Flystrike can be fatal to the sheep, said a spokesman for Australian Wool Innovation Ltd.

A major retailer, Abercrombie & Fitch, said in a written statement that it “considers the proper treatment of animals to be of critical concern” and will “not support the Australian merino wool market until mulesing and the live exporting of Australian sheep ends.” The company said it “does not intend to knowingly sell products using Australian merino wool.”

Matt Rice, a campaign coordinator for PETA, said in an interview, “There are a lot of alternatives to mulesing that are less cruel.” He noted that about 20 percent of Australian sheep garments do involve mulesing.

“It’s not something that we do unnecessarily,” said Peter Corish, president of the Australian National Farmers Federation. “We do it because the alternative, flystrike, is much worse.”

Corish said if the procedure were outlawed, flystrike might claim as many as three million of Australia’s population of about 100 million sheep in a year.

The Australian Wool Innovation spokesman said the group is researching alternate ways of preventing flystrike, including the use of a protein injection to cause the wool around the area to fall out. PETA’s Rice suggested that techniques as simple as washing the area could prevent infestation.

PETA also opposes the live export of Australian sheep, saying many die in transport to foreign slaughter houses.

This story first appeared in the October 18, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.