Editorial: Showtime: go see the sheep while you can

Sheep numbers have been on the decline in New Zealand for the last fifty years. Credit: Nikki Mackay

I was talking to the livestock manager of this weekend's Wānaka A&P Show, and they were saying sheep and wool entries were up on previous years.

I was pleased to hear this as having been raised on a North Canterbury sheep farm, I like sheep, they interest me. But I know this resurgence isn’t a general phenomenon as sheep numbers have been declining in the Upper Clutha, which is prime sheep country, for the last 50 years.

After a bit of Googling, I discovered this phenomenon isn’t just confined to our region or New Zealand as a whole: it is worldwide. 

So this editorial is dedicated to the sheep and the sheep farmers that were. 

As kids growing up on the farm in the ’60s, we were taught that New Zealand had 60 million sheep - that's 20 sheep for every Kiwi.

It was a statistic we were proud of, hillsides dotted with white sheep were iconic to New Zealand, and tourists came from far and wide to experience this phenomenon.

But having peaked at 70 million in 1982, last year sheep numbers slipped below 28 million for the first time in 75 years.

The decline is mirrored by the foremost players in the game, Australia and China. Australia's sheep numbers dropped from 170 million in 1990 to 72 million in 2017.

The world's largest sheep flock, in China, peaked at 152 million in 2005. Today it's 110 million.

In the 1940s, the United States had about 50 million sheep; today, it has less than 6 million and declining.

So what is the reason behind this?

In New Zealand an obvious reason is the rise and rise of dairy conversions – we all know about that.

Then there's the consolidation of farms because sheep farmers are struggling for an economy of scale.

There is diversification into other things like beef and grain.

Subdivisions and urban sprawl gobble up the land.

There is tenure review.

And some sheep farming land has been converted to conservation estate.

On the global scene, there's been environmental degradation of the marginal country sheep are run on, and the carrying capacity has dropped. This is happening, especially in China and Patagonia.

But the number one, the most fundamental reason for the decline in sheep numbers worldwide is that the international wool industry has been in decline for 40 years.

Wool has been superseded by cheaper, synthetic fibres. Get this. Wool accounts for just 1.3 per cent of global fibre production and synthetics 61.4 per cent. That's not counting cotton, silk etcetera.

Since 1990 the value of New Zealand's exports of raw wool and wool products has declined from $1.3 billion a year to $700 million and on many sheep farms meat has replaced wool as the primary profit maker.

But it's not all bad news.

The productivity of the sheep farmers that are left keeps on increasing – they are producing the same amount now as when there were with twice as many sheep. The industry is doing a whole lot better on a whole lot less.

So, which of these factors applies to the decline in sheep in the Upper Clutha? I suspect it's a combination of subdivision and development taking up the land and forcing sheep up into the hills, and the tenure review process which has forced them back down again. There is no room for them anymore.


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