Story: Economic history
Page 4 – Early pastoral economy
The production of staples – raw materials exported overseas with a minimum of processing – shaped the structure of the New Zealand economy, set the pace of economic growth, and influenced the political and social organisations of the community.
The economist and historian W. B. Sutch described New Zealand’s dominant staples for much of the 19th and 20th centuries as ‘processed grass’. Except for a brief period during the gold rushes of the 1860s, wool, meat and dairy products were by far the highest proportion of New Zealand exports by value, from the 1850s, when statistics were first collected, until the 1970s, when there was a great diversification.
The importance of sheep to the New Zealand economy may be seen in the fact that a fleece appears in the coats of arms of New Zealand, of the cities of Christchurch and Wellington, of the University of Canterbury and, interestingly, of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand. The city of Dunedin includes a ram’s head and Invercargill has a wool bale.
Initially the staple was wool, because unrefrigerated meat or dairy products could only be exported as far as Australia. The rest of the sheep was boiled up for tallow which was used for candles and soap. The first large commercial flocks were in the Wairarapa, a rural extension of the Wellington settlement. Sheep farming spread up and down the east coast of New Zealand from Southland to the East Cape, as soon as land was alienated or leased from Māori, and there was transport infrastructure.
Sheep numbers grew quickly from importing and breeding. There were a million sheep by the mid-1850s and 10 million by the early 1870s. Total numbers peaked at 70 million in the early 1980s.
Sheep provided a profitable average return but there was much income uncertainty from weather (drought or snowstorms), disease (scab and footrot) and pests such as rabbits and gorse. Farmers had to adapt northern-hemisphere and Australian ways to local New Zealand conditions. They also had to adapt their product as the English woollen mills changed their fibre requirements.