Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.



Pioneering Era

It is of historical significance only that Captain Cook, on 20 May 1773, set ashore at Queen Charlotte Sound a ram and a ewe – the survivors of six sheep brought from Cape of Good Hope. The attempted introduction failed with the death of both sheep in a few days. Sheep were not successfully introduced until 60 years later. In 1834 Bell, on Mana Island (near Wellington), had 100 head, the missionaries at Waimate had some 200 in 1840, and at about the same time the whalers at Port Underwood (and probably other stations around the coastline) had unspecified numbers. These pioneers were not sheep farmers, but they had every inducement to introduce sheep, cattle, pigs, and poultry. The mild climate gave an abundance of suitable natural pasture and the pressing need for supplies of fresh animal products encouraged the introduction of domestic animals associated with the European environment.

The earliest pioneers had little interest in farming. But the farmers soon followed, and during the early 1840s pastoral farming began in Nelson, Wairarapa, Marlborough, Canterbury, and Otago. In 1843 C. R. Bidwill imported 1,600 sheep from Sydney. These were landed at Nelson, where half were sold and, of the remainder, about 350 were transhipped the following year to Wellington. Bidwill drove them along the coastline to Wairarapa and, at the Lake Ferry, met another flock owned by Clifford, Weld, and Vavasour. Three years later (1847) this trio, having heard from the whalers of open tussock country in the South Island, left Wairarapa. They obtained further shipments of some 3,000 sheep from Sydney and landed them at Port Underwood. After droving south along the coastline of Cloudy Bay to Cape Campbell for 19 days, they occupied (or “squatted”) the area which later became Flaxbourne, around the township of Ward. Meanwhile other flocks had been moving into Marl-borough over Tophouse (discovered by surveyor Cotterell in 1842) from the bush-clad Nelson area to the open, tussock-covered Wairau Valley. George Duppa moved both sheep and cattle from the Wai-iti Valley through Tophouse in 1844, but by 1849 he was only one of the 30 squatters in the Wairau. By 1850 both the Wairau and Awatere Valleys were regarded as fully occupied – at least for the time being — and the squatters were already looking for outlets for surplus sheep. Canterbury, with considerable areas of suitable open sheep, country, was the obvious choice, but it was not until 1852 that a practicable route through the mountains to the west of Kaikoura was discovered.

At that time there were already some sheep in Canterbury. The Deans brothers, who settled at Riccarton near Christchurch, brought their first shipment from Sydney in 1843; and in the following year the Greenwood brothers had a flock at Purau on Lyttelton Harbour. Further south at Waikouaiti in Otago, whaler-farmer Johnny Jones had a flock of 1,000 head in 1844. The pastoralists had arrived, and sheep numbers increased quickly so that by 1855 the national total had reached 763,000. During the 1860s the totals jumped from 2.8 million in 1861 to 4.9 million in 1864 and 8.4 million in 1867. During this time Canterbury and Otago each pastured about one-third of the colony's total flock. (Samuel Butler, who arrived in Christchurch in 1860, wrote at that time — “The all engrossing topic of conversation in Christchurch was sheep, horses, cattle, dogs, English grasses, paddocks, bush and so forth. I was amused at dinner by a certain sailor and others who maintained that the end of the world was likely to arrive shortly, the principal argument being that there was no more sheep country to be found in Canterbury. As for farming as we do in England, it is invariably agreed that it does not pay”.) The sheep population continued to increase and by 1880 had reached 13 million, of which 3.6 million were in Canterbury, 3.9 in Otago, 1.9 in Hawke's Bay, and 1.6 in Wellington.

Sheep Farming 1850–80 – The Wool Period

The 30–year period 1850–1880 encompasses the first phase in the development of New Zealand sheep farming. Sheep numbers increased rapidly by natural multiplication, with ewes lambing through most of the year. But it was the importations from Australia which contributed most during the 1850s and 1860s. There are only scattered references to these arrivals, but it is recorded that in 1864 some 13,000 sheep arrived in Canterbury from across the Tasman. In the same year 38,000 arrived overland from Nelson and Marlborough (which had about 800,000 between them) and 18,000 from Otago, where there were already more than a million sheep. At that time the Canterbury total had reached 1.5 million. The New Zealand pioneers were fortunate in having close at hand a readily available supply of a suitable breed of sheep. Because of recurring droughts in Australia, sheep could be bought at reasonable prices. Not only did Australian sheep arrive, but during the 1850–60 period many Australian squatters (disgruntled by the fickle rainfall) also sold or abandoned their properties and migrated to New Zealand. These men arrived with capital to invest, with experience in colonial farming, knowledgeable of the peculiar habits of the Merino sheep, and with whole-hearted support of a “squatting” policy of land tenure based on the occupation of large areas of grazing country at low rentals. They became known as the “Prophets” because they forecast failure for the small-area arable farm plans of the established settlements.

Early Breeds

The Australian importations were, almost without exception, the Merino breed, which had been noted through the centuries in its native Spain for producing a superfine fleece. By imposing an embargo on the export of sheep, Spain retained a monopoly of the then world supply of fine wool, and it was not until the early 1800s that the breed moved outside the country as a result of war. The first importation to Australia was from Cape Colony in 1798. These sheep were not only maintained as purebreds but were also crossed with the small hairy ewes which had arrived earlier from India and Cape Colony. The breed proved so suitable for Australian grazing conditions that the original importation was quickly reinforced with others from Europe, and by the time the New Zealand pioneer farmers needed sheep there were plenty in Australia.

The breed had the virtue of producing a high-quality superfine wool on scanty native herbage, and thus fitted neatly into the only means of pasture utilisation – wool production. That the body growth rate was slow and the carcass shape primitive was of little importance when there was no demand for meat. There were, however, other breed features which could be overlooked less easily. The ewes were not prolific breeders and produced only a few lambs; they had poorly developed maternal instincts and were indifferent milk producers, while the lambs were weakly and slow growing. During the 1850s and 60s small numbers of the various British breeds were entering the country and it was inevitable that experimental cross breeding with the Merino would follow. Two breeds, the long-stapled, coarse-woolled Lincoln and the English Leicester proved immediately successful for crossing with the Merino. The resulting progeny, the colonial half-bred, proved a superior sheep on all except the mountain pastures, but it was only partially successful in heavy rainfall areas or on the heavier soils where it was wet underfoot. The half-bred ewes were bigger than the Merino parents, grew faster, had an improved carcass shape, and grew a heavier fleece of wool intermediate for staple length and fineness between the long-stapled coarse Lincoln and Leicester and the short-stapled superfine Merino. The half-bred ewes produced more lambs, were better milkers, and better mothers. The success of the experimental crossing led to the wholesale conversion of the Merino population to half-bred. In the high rainfall areas the topcrossing with the long-wool rams (mainly Lincoln) proceeded through successive generations, producing three-quarter bred, crossbred and finally grade flocks of the long-wool type. This is what happened in the North Island, and by the early 1890s the northern sheep were almost all crossbred. In the light rainfall areas of the South Island, the crossing did not proceed beyond the first cross, half-bred type, but the resulting decline in Merino numbers led to the mating together of half-breds. This interbreeding of half-breds eventually led to the development of the Corriedale breed, which later received international recognition and distribution.

There are no figures available to show the rate at which the changes progressed, nor would it be possible to measure them accurately on a national scale. But an estimate of the breeding of the 17.5 million sheep about 1890 shows only 34 per cent Merino, 33 per cent Lincoln and crosses, 17 per cent Leicester and crosses, 7 per cent Romney Marsh and crosses, and only 9 per cent of the fat-lamb “down”-type crosses.

During the 1850–80 wool period sheep increased from 0.76 to 12.9 million; wool exports from 7.8 to over 60 million lb; and the wool income from £524,000 to £3,400,000. The country was fully stocked by the 1870s (at least for the time being) and surplus old sheep became an embarrassment. Boiling down for tallow and canning the best cuts for export gave some relief; but neither industry was ever on a sound footing and the returns at the best of times showed little profit.

There were four other factors which affected the developing industry during 1850–80:

Sheep Scab

The widespread incidence of sheep scab was caused by the mange parasite brought from Australia and quickly distributed by the large sheep movements taking place. In 1894, following a long series of ordinances which had stipulated inspection of flocks for infestation, the imposition of fines, compulsory dipping, and a sheep tax, the country was at last declared free from infestation. Meanwhile, many sheepmen had been ruined, many infested sheep had died, and in the Amuri County in 1884 some 20,000 infested and contact animals were destroyed.

Sex Ratio

There were changes in the sex-ratio composition of the flock. Because of her maternal responsibilities over a long period, the breeding ewe each year clips a lightweight fleece prone to some environmental faults (cot and break), which lower the market value of the wool. The sexless wether is the best wool grower. With wool the aim, wethers predominate, and the ewe flock is limited to the number needed to maintain the wether flock. Even by 1900, when the export meat trade was well established, there were 38 wethers per hundred ewes, compared with the present-day figure of six per hundred ewes.


These were deliberately introduced between 1840 and 1860, but it was not until late in the 1860s that they became well established in Otago and Southland. They then moved northwards to meet groups which had come south from Marlborough. The effects of the quick increase of rabbits affected the sheep industry in a spectacular way. In Otago sheep numbers at the Moa Flat station were reduced from 120,000 to 45,000, while in Southland, Castle Rock dropped from 50,000 to 20,000 head. By 1887 about one and a half million acres of land had been abandoned in the two provinces alone, while between 1875 and 1887 the Government lost over £315,000 in land rentals. Commercialisation of the rabbits coincided with the early invasions, and skins were exported during the early seventies, while carcasses were added when refrigeration became available. Although the peak years for the export of skins (17.6 million in 1894) and carcasses (6 million in 1901) were still in the future, incalculable damage to sheep-grazing areas had already occurred during the 1870s. Low prices for sheep products during the 1880s and 1890s served to stimulate rabbit commercialisation, and it was not until the Rabbit Destruction Council was set up in 1952 that the problem of total elimination was tackled nationally.

The Changing Environment

Introduced pasture species quickly replaced the native plants over large areas. Steep hills were burned over and surface sown, while downlands and plains were ploughed and sown down with grasses and clovers popular in the home districts of the pioneers. The changing pastures helped to hasten the decline of the Merino, a fastidious feeder, well satisfied by the herbs and fine grasses of the sparse native pasture. The gross-feeding Merino derivatives — half-breds and crossbreds – thrived on the coarse and bulky improved pastures and produced heavy fleeces of coarser wool which, even if worth less per pound (and this was not always the case) was at least equal in total fleece value.

The position of the sheep men at this time is well summarised by Acland, who wrote of the Canterbury sheep runs: “On the whole, runholding has not been much of a business in Canterbury. Scab ruined a lot of them in the fifties. Before the scab was cleaned up, speculators and settlers began buying up the best parts of the runs. Bad times in the Eighties ruined more runholders than scab had done and rabbits became a pest before the bad times had begun to get better; and the severe snow storms each used up several years' profits. Besides, hardly one of the early squatters (except the Prophets) had any sheep-farming experience at all. A few were natural sheep men who soon learned their business but the only-thing that saved any of the others was that competent Scotch managers and shepherds were more plentiful in the old days than they have ever been since”.

The Frozen-meat Period, 1880–92

The second phase in the development of sheep farming began with the successful marketing of a cargo of frozen mutton and lamb in London in May 1882. The sheep for this shipment came from the Totara Estate in Otago, owned by the New Zealand and Australian Land Co. Slaughtering and dressing were done on the sheep station and the carcasses railed to Port Chalmers and frozen aboard the sailing ship Dunedin. Loading started on 7 December 1881, but as the refrigerating machinery failed, the carcasses already stowed aboard were unloaded and sold locally. It was not until 11 February 1882 that loading was completed, and four days later the Dunedin sailed from Port Chalmers.

The success of this pioneering shipment encouraged other sheep owners to export carcasses on their own account, or to form exporting companies. Freezing aboard ship was soon replaced by the building of processing works in which both slaughtering and freezing were carried out. Some cargoes arrived in unsaleable condition and some, although in good order, sold at very low prices, but the pioneers of the trade persisted in their efforts. In 1882 some 30,500 carcasses, mainly mutton, were exported. By 1892 the total had reached 1.9 million, and by 1900 over 3 million. The early shipments were mainly mutton carcasses, but by 1900 lamb had established itself (1.9 million mutton carcasses and 1.3 million lamb carcasses) and it was not until 1905 that lamb, with 2 million carcasses, exceeded mutton, with 1.6 million carcasses. The industry was adjusting itself to produce a prime export lamb and 30 years of wool production were giving way to an era of meat and wool production. The development of the changed policy is well illustrated by the export figures for 1960–61. The mutton killings, mainly aged ewes, totalled 7.4 million, of which 2.9 million carcasses were exported; lamb killings reached 19.8 million, of which 18.3 million carcasses were exported.

During the first 20 years of the export trade, prices both for mutton and for lamb were variable, but generally low (3d. a pound in 1893), shipping freights were high (2½d. a pound on the sailing ships reduced to 1¾d. on the steamships), and total charges (transport and selling) were about 3d. per pound. Despite the low prices and high costs, the sheep industry would have been in an even worse plight without the overseas outlet for surplus animals. The pioneers thus persisted in their efforts to establish the trade.

Three-plane System of Production

The new trade completely changed the organisation, the production aim, and the breeding policy of the sheep industry. In a short time sheep farming developed a well defined three-plane or three-tier system of production. (1) The low-plane grazing country, the high country, where pasture production was sufficient only for sheep with a slow-growing carcass, primitive in development but with a fleece of superfine wool, remained the home of the Merino. Most of this country is in mountain regions of Marlborough, Canterbury, and Otago, and the flocks were made up of a high proportion of wethers. The mountain areas are isolated and the system of sheep farming is self-sufficient and is not related to the rest of the industry. (2) The medium-plane (or middle tier) country comprises the hill areas of both islands. This is the breeding country. The ewe flock is most important. The ewes, which are bred on the farm, pass into the breeding flock, where they remain for four or five years. They then leave the farm in the autumn and appear in the ewe fairs to be bought by fat-lamb breeders as “cast for age” (or “C.F.A.”) ewes. The wether lambs also pass through the saleyards each summer as store wether lambs and are bought by fatteners to be made ready for the processing works. The ewe lambs are retained on the farm and as “one shear” or “two tooth” ewes, they enter the flock to replace the old ewes cast for age. In the heavy rainfall hill regions the increasing use of Romney Marsh rams on the crossbred flock has produced a New Zealand grade commercial Romney. In the light rainfall areas, particularly in Marlborough, Canterbury, and Otago, the fine-wool, half-bred types have persisted, and led to the development of a new breed, the internationally famous Corriedale. The sources of income on hill farms include wool (mainly ewe fleece with some hogget wool), cast for age breeding ewes, store-wether lambs, and surplus ewe lambs, also store-beef cattle. (3) The high-plane (or top-tier) farms breed export lambs. Breeding ewes (mainly C.F.A. ewes) are bought in from the hill country each year and remain on the fat-lamb farm for two years before tooth deterioration leads to a final culling and dispatch to the freezing works. These ewes provide most of the mutton carcasses. Whatever the type of ewe on the fat-lamb farm – Romney, Romney crosses, Corriedale, or half-bred – they are mated to rams of one of the recognised fat-lamb breeds. Until the early years of the century the Border Leicester and Shropshire competed for popularity, with the former the most used. The Southdown gradually won support and has become the universal fat-lamb sire since 1920, because of the market demand for lightweight prime carcasses and the introduction of differential payments which penalised heavyweight lambs.

The following table shows the proportion of income in 1961 from various sources of the three main types of sheep farms:

Type of Sheep Farm Sources of Income — Proportion per Cent
Wool Sheep and Lambs Cattle Other
High country (low plane) 80 11 6 3 100
Hill country (medium plane) 46 30 22 2 100
Fat-lamb farms (high plane) 37 41 10 12 100

Between 1895 and 1960 total sheep numbers increased from 19.8 million (of which 43 per cent were ewes) to 48.4 million (of which 70 per cent were ewes), while the breed composition of the national flock changed completely and is best illustrated by the breed proportions of the rams in use. This is given in the following table for the years 1900 and 1960.

Breeds of Rams Used in New Zealand
(as percentage of total rams used)
Breed 1900 1960
Lincoln 44 (2)
English Leicester 13 (2)
Merino 15 2
Romney Marsh 11 58
Corriedale and half-bred (1) 8
Border Leicester 11 2
Southdown 1 24
Other breeds 5 6
100 100

(1) Not available in statistics until 1919.

(2) Included in other breeds.

The increase in total numbers resulted from the changing environment. By 1920 some 11 million acres had been surface sown in pasture and a further 5 million acres sown after cultivation. It was about this time that experimental topdressing with phosphatic fertilisers showed a way of increasing pasture production, and the era of grassland farming (as distinct from pasture-supported supplementary crops) began. By 1930 the experiments had been incorporated into farm practice, and in that year 42,600 tons of phosphate was spread over 1,410,000 acres. Some 107,000 acres received lime only, and 4,000 acres both lime and phosphate. For 1960 the comparable figures are 1,050,000 tons of phosphatic fertiliser used on 7,140,000 acres, a further 422,000 acres limed only, and 1,335,000 acres receiving both lime and phosphate, giving a total of 8,897,000 acres topdressed. Of this area 3,960,000 acres was spread by planes, an innovation which began in 1950 with seven planes distributing 5,000 tons over 49,000 acres.

Improved pasture production led to improved pasture use. Subdivision by fencing was necessary to keep more rigid control over the high-producing grasses and clovers. There are no figures available which allow this to be expressed in acres, but a sample five-year period (1945–49) shows that 50,000 tons of plain wire and 20,000 tons of barbed wire were imported, sufficient to build 50,000 miles of standard fence. The impressive change in the proportion of ewes in the total flock (43 per cent in 1895 to 70 per cent in 1960) illustrates the change in the breeding policy from wool to meat (fat lamb) plus wool. The ewe fleece is still an important consideration, but second to the prime fat lamb. Ewes provide the bulk of the mutton produced.

Sheep Population Today

In recent years there has been a steady increase in the sheep population of both Islands. Thus during the decade from 30 June 1953 to 30 June 1963 the total number of sheep increased by 38.7 per cent. At 30 June 1963 the number of breeding ewes was 34,988,968, and the total number of sheep was 50,190,284, with 27,011,903 (53.82 per cent) in the North Island, and 23,178,381 (46.18 per cent) in the South Island.

The Story




This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.

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