Will New Zealand’s love for the sheep ever return?
New Zealand is famous for a great raft of different things – the Lord Of The Rings saga, breathtaking scenery, a love of rugby and the endemic kiwi bird. If there is one animal that the country is really known for, though, it probably wouldn't be the ball-shaped bird with a big beak – that honour would fall to the sheep.
It's a long-held assumption that there are far more sheep than people spread over Aotearoa, but is this actually the case? It is, but the ratio is not so skewed as some would have you believe. In 2011, the nation was home to 4.42 million people, with 31.1 million sheep grazing the land, according to Statistics New Zealand. This works out to approximately seven sheep per person, which may seem a great deal, but not when compared to the peak of 1982.
During that year, 70.3 million sheep grazed our fields, but just 3.18 million humans called NZ home – that's an enormous 22 sheep per person. So, it's evident that numbers are falling, but why is this?
It's all to do with another great New Zealand farming staple – the cow. Large swathes of land that had been used for sheep farming for decades are now being converted to dairy pastures, as international prices for products and produce of this sector have risen. Conversely, demand for wool and sheep meat has declined over the years, meaning that less sheep are required, Susan Kilsby, a dairy analyst for AgriHQ told Farm Online.
Indeed, milk-producing cows on the dairy farm actually add far more to New Zealand's overall economy than do sheep, beef and grain combined, so it's no wonder we're seeing a dwindle in woolly numbers.
It's not all bad news for sheep farmers, though – sheep productivity is steadily improving. Lamb prices (at the farm gate) have risen more than 85 per cent in real terms, and mutton has nearly doubled in price since 1990. What's more, China is now a huge importer of NZ sheep products – in 2014, no other country imported more lamb than it.