Story: Sheep farming

New Zealand has almost 40 million sheep – 10 for each person. Sheep farming has been crucial in the development of the economy, and for 130 years was the most important agricultural industry.

Full story by Hugh Stringleman and Robert Peden
Main image: Romney sheep being mustered on hill country

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Importance of sheep farming

Sheep farming has played a huge part in New Zealand’s economy. From 1856 to 1987, it was the most important farming industry. But since then, dairy farming has earned more money. Sheep numbers have fallen, from 70 million in 1982 to about 39 million in 2007.

The first sheep

British navigator James Cook brought sheep to New Zealand in 1773 and 1777. In 1814 missionary Samuel Marsden moved a flock to the Bay of Islands, and in 1834 sheep were put on Mana Island, near Wellington, to feed whalers.

Early farms

The first farms were set up in the 1840s:

  • Sheep from Australia were driven round the coast from Wellington to the Wairarapa.
  • William and John Deans brought Merino sheep to the Canterbury Plains.
  • Whaler Johnny Jones farmed 2,000 sheep in Otago, on land leased from Māori.

Merinos and other breeds

The Merino, a Spanish breed, was brought to New Zealand in large numbers. Merinos produce fine wool, but not such good meat, and they get footrot in damp conditions. Farmers imported British sheep breeds that produced better meat, and could live in places with high rainfall.

South and North islands

The dry eastern side of the South Island was ideal for sheep farming. Farmers leased land from the government and set up huge sheep runs – mostly farming Merinos for their wool.

Sheep farming expanded more slowly in the North Island. Māori owned much of the land, it was covered in bush, and the wet weather did not suit Merinos.

The refrigerated meat trade

In 1882, frozen meat was sent to Britain for the first time. Exporting meat became very important to New Zealand’s economy, and farming expanded around the country.

Cross-breeding

From the 19th century, farmers mated different breeds to produce sheep for particular conditions. The first New Zealand breed was the Corriedale – a cross between the Merino and several English breeds.

Other New Zealand breeds include:

  • New Zealand Romney, which makes up about two-thirds of the national flock
  • Drysdale, which has hairy wool used in carpet
  • Perendale, which is good for meat and wool, and can live in cold, wet places
  • Coopworth, which produces a lot of meat and wool on good farmland.

Later changes

Sheep farming did very well in the 1950s and 1960s. But in the 1980s, government subsidies were removed. Sheep farming became less profitable, and sheep numbers fell. Today, farmers have placed increased emphasis on breeding sheep for improved meat or wool production, to keep farms profitable.

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How to cite this page:

Hugh Stringleman and Robert Peden. 'Sheep farming', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 11-Jul-13
URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/sheep-farming