This past Saturday was something of a red-letter day in New Zealand history, one that somehow seems to have gone unremarked as well as unmarked in any meaningful way – a truly egregious oversight there’s an obligation to remedy.
It was the 250th anniversary of sheep arriving on these fair shores – a ewe and ram having been released by Captain James Cook in Queen Charlotte Sound on May 20, 1773.
It was an inauspicious introduction of the woolly ruminant mammals – the pair only survived a few days before apparently succumbing to indigenous plants that proved to be poisonous to them.
Undeterred by what some might have taken as a broad hint that this new land would be unsympathetic to these woolly immigrants, further – much more successful – attempts to establish sheep here were made over the next few years, including by missionary Samuel Marsden, who introduced them to the Bay of Islands and farmed them in Mana Island close to Wellington for the purpose of feeding whalers. [These efforts were obviously the country’s first forays in the now understandably controversial international live sheep trade, although it involved importing them here, rather than exporting them elsewhere.]
These days the advent of these animals in Aotearoa is most likely to be dimly viewed via the hindsight of the significant environmental changes [including degradation] that their arrival heralded, but it’s impossible to imagine any aspect of our nation today – positive as well as negative – that the introduction of sheep isn’t ultimately integral to.
Aotearoa New Zealand was literally and figuratively built off the sheep’s back.
Although the white gold rush of dairying may have muddied our collective memory of the fact in recent decades, between 1856 and 1987 sheep farming was the undisputed key to the country’s economic prosperity.
During the late 19th century, wool was our major agricultural export commodity, and in the late 1960s still accounted for more than a third of all export revenues.
Meanwhile, the exportation of sheep meat helped drive the development of refrigeration technology, which has obviously been essential for the development of New Zealand as a whole [economically, socially, and culturally – because, yes, contrary to modish opinion, these are all inextricably interrelated].
The tide has been going out for a while now as far as the centrality of sheep to our national identity goes – no longer is the ratio of humans to sheep the one fact about our nation that is inevitably trotted out on offshore gameshows [although the current estimated count of 5.2 per person is still impressive, it’s a far cry from the peak of 22 per person in 1982].
The desire to be seen to be ‘doing our part’ to combat climate change looks set to further reduce that ratio, given calls to downsize our national flock due to the greenhouse gas emissions the bleating wee buggers produce.
But that’s surely woolly thinking, given it will effectively make zero difference on a global scale, while our lamb meat is among the most carbon efficient in the world and wool offers a sustainable alternative to many synthetic and plastic products produced by petrochemical companies.
Time for a comeback …?