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Counting sheep

Wairere Rams is one of the country’s most well-known sheep studs. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

The decline of the national flock


There are now only 5.6 sheep per person, down from a peak of 22 sheep per person in 1982.

To those in the industry, it marks an alarming, long-term decline of the national flock, something which could threaten the industry itself and New Zealand’s economy.

Wairere is a 1200 hectares station out Bideford way.

The Wairere stud was started by John Daniell in 1967 before his son, Derek Daniell, took over with his wife Christine in 1984.

Since then the stud has gone from strength to strength.

Forty years ago, Wairere was selling about 850 rams per year.

In recent years, sales have averaged around 3,500 per year, including rams sold in Australia, UK, France, Germany, and South America.

Daniell said he’d seen many changes over that time.

The 68-year old ram breeder and former Nuffield scholar expressed concerns about the declining national flock.

Figures from Statistics New Zealand from the 2018 agricultural production census, showed sheep numbers had fallen in 10 of the past 12 years — down from 40.1 million in 2006 to just 27.3 million last year.

Daniell said the downturn in sheep numbers was part of a larger trend.

“The number of farmed ruminant animals has reduced dramatically since their respective population peaks, sheep down 43 million form the peak [of 70.3 million in the 1980s], deer down 1 million, and beef cattle down 3.8 million, even dairy cows down 300,000.

The decline in ruminant animals was representative of changing attitudes towards farming, he said.

“Farming was once regarded as the backbone of the country. Farmers were respected for their contribution to the national economy. Even today, pastoral farming exports still make up 45% of all merchandise exports.

But politicians, media, and lobby groups now regard farmers as SCAPEGOATS, an easy political target, because farmers are only half of one percent of the population.

The recent growth of the forestry industry, driven by the government’s commitment to the Paris Agreement and the One Billion Trees planting project, will become a major contributing factor to a further decline in sheep and beef numbers as farmland is converted to forestry.

“In the early days livestock was all over the country,” he said.

“But there’s been a lot of reversion of second-class country to Manuka, native bush and plantation forestry.

“From a peak of grazing around 60 per cent of New Zealand land, ruminant animals now roam only 40 per cent.”

The biggest contributing factor to lower sheep numbers has been the collapse of the wool industry.

Daniell expressed concerns about the increased use of synthetic fibre and its impact, not only on the cotton and wool industries, but also the environment.

“There’s a huge irony in talking about sustainability.”

He said the price of fine wool was “good” currently, with a huge drought in Australia reducing the supply of wool, driving up demand and price.

The spread of African swine flu to China has also increased demand for New Zealand’s sheep meat, with 55-60% of exports currently going to China.

Cheap synthetic fibre from the oil industry now dominates the world fibre market, displacing cotton and wool. “I wish our lobby groups would focus on the plastic and synthetic fibre pollution in our oceans, and support wool as a sustainable and natural fibre.”

It’s something which concerns Wairere Ram’s business manager Simon Buckley too.

“If you look at the decline in sheep numbers since the peak in the early 80s to the present day, it equates to thousands of sheep being lost every day.

“If that rate of decline continues, and there is no sign that it is slowing, there will be no sheep left in New Zealand in another 30 years.”

The shrinking of the national ewe flock had impacted ram sales, with figures down about 11 per cent this season.

Buckley said it was “disappointing but inevitable”.

But while sheep numbers have dropped, productivity has increased.

The 2018 lamb crop report from Beef and Lamb showed farmers were doing well productivity-wise, with more ewes having twins and triplets, lifting the national lambing percentage to 129 per cent last year, compared to around 100 percent thirty years ago.

And average lamb carcass weight will be greater than 19kg this season, for the first time ever.

The future of the sheep industry is in high lamb production and that’s what motivates Daniell.

“It’s the buzz of breeding more productive sheep for our clients that drives me, lifting our clients’ profitability and giving them more lifestyle choices.”

“The future of sheep farming will come down to whether people have a passion for farming, or whether farmers take advantage of the huge, taxpayer funded subsidies for planting trees,” he said.

Over the next few weeks, Wairere rams will be put out with the ewes all over New Zealand, contributing to growing the next, improved generation of New Zealand sheep.

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