Sheep farming is a major industry in New Zealand. The country ranks fourth, behind Australia, China and the US in list of top wool producing countries. A 2007 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated the presence of about 39 million sheep in the country (nearly 10 sheep for every person). New Zealand has the highest density of sheep per unit area in the world. This means that one can find sheep and beef farms scattered throughout the landscape. The presence of 16,000 such farms solidifies that fact, and also makes New Zealand the world’s largest exporter of lambs.

Sheep Farming History

Sheep farming is a part of the wide agricultural sector. The principal purpose of this farming is to produce wool and meat for export.

Sheep farming was the most important agricultural industry in New Zealand for 130 years, but was overtaken by dairy farming in 1987. Like every other industry, sheep farming had its peak in 1982 before the eventual concession to dairy farming.

Sheep were introduced into New Zealand between 1773 and 1777 by James Cook, the British explorer. Samuel Marsden, a missionary, introduced some flocks of sheep to the Bay of Islands, and then also farmed in Mana Island close to Wellington. There was a steady development of the industry from the 19th century till late 20th century. Distinguished people have been responsible for creating a boom in the industry by introducing different sheep breeds in the country.

The Spanish breed of Merino was the most successful sheep breed in the early 19th century. Many other breeds followed suit in the next centuries with cross-breeding practices undertaken.

Merino sheep

Sheep numbers have been on the decline ever since dairy farming became the major player. From a peak of 70 million in 1982, the number of sheep has kept decreasing. The 2007 estimate of 39 million has gone down to 27.6 million in 2016.

Sheep Breeds in New Zealand

The New Zealand Sheepbreeders Association overlooks the sheep breeding process in the country. It also looks into the aspects of purity in created breeds, alongwith records of pedigree and performance.

The developed breeds reported by the Association are: Border Leicester, Borderdale, Corriedale, Dorper, Dorset Down, East Friesian, English Leicester, Finnsheep, Hampshire, Lincoln, Oxford, Poll Dorset & Dorset Horn, Polwarth, Ryeland, Shropshire, South Suffolk, Suffolk, and Texel. Varieties also include cross-bred individuals with enhanced characters.


The earliest farmlands were large and specifically for sheep brought from Australia. These farms were in locations like Wairarapa, Canterbury Plains, Otago and ethnic Māori land. Later, Government land was leased in the eastern part of South Island, a dry area, as it was found suitable to establish large farms for Merinos for increased production of wool.

Māori owned sheep farms in the Northern Island weren’t very productive due to unfavourable conditions for survival of Merinos.

Trade and Exports

The first trading of sheep meat for New Zealand was with Britain when frozen meat was exported in 1882. Thereafter, with growing expansion of sheep farms, this export trade has sustained the economy of the country substantially. New Zealand’s major agricultural export commodity was wool during the late 19th century. Even in the late 1960s it accounted for over a third of all export revenues but as its price has seen steady decline relative to other commodities, wool is no longer profitable for many farmers.

The Future of Sheep Farming in New Zealand

Sheep farming is on the decline relative to the erstwhile dominant period. Many farmers are turning away from this sheep rearing, primarily due to a low profit margin. As wool no longer commands a hefty price tag in the market, the scope for large-scale sheep farming shrinks. Also, the withdrawal of a Government subsidy to this sector has also aided in the decline. Statistics show that Kiwi sheep farmers are easing out on the sheep breeding process and probably looking to shift to a profitable industry.

In spite of the decline in plains, the hilly areas of the country have seen a proliferation of sheep farming post late 1960s. This growth is on account of introduction of better species of pasture vegetation, use of pesticides and weed control, regulated and systematic paddock management of farms, and introduction of better and disease resistant breeds of sheep. Under a wide variety of climatic and soil conditions, and the large extent of farms have resulted in development of a wide range of parallel industries.


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