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National flock tumbles to historic low

For the first time in 170 years, the country’s sheep-to-people ratio has dropped below 5:1.

Stats NZ said there are fewer dairy cattle, sheep, and deer in New Zealand’s paddocks, according to the final results of the five-yearly Agricultural Production Census 2022, released on Monday. It said the ratio of sheep to people dropped below 5:1 in 2022 for the first time since the 1850s when national sheep numbers were first recorded.

Stats NZ general manager of economic and environment insights Jason Attewell said that in 1982, New Zealand’s sheep-to-human ratio famously sat at 22:1.

The 2022 survey of farming production and practices revealed small decreases in the national dairy herd and sheep flock, with dairy cattle numbers down one per cent
from the previous year.

The national sheep flock totalled 25.3 million in June 2022. Attewell said this was a drop of 400,000 sheep compared with the previous year, representing a two per cent decrease.

“Despite total sheep numbers continuing to fall, there were 22 million lambs tailed in the 2021 to 2022 year, still a substantial number.”

Wairarapa Federated Farmers president David Hayes said he wasn’t surprised by the news: “It’s been on a trend down for a good while”.

He said there are many issues that could play into the falling flock numbers, including economic shifts, market demand, environmental factors, the regulatory environment, farm consolidation, and, especially, carbon farming.

“Carbon farming and the effects on the profitability of hill country farming compared to an unregulated system of planting pine trees is seeing the loss of farmland. That’s a big issue for Wairarapa.”

Hayes said land use changes on farms could also be driving the decrease in sheep.

“[Some farmers] are planting pine trees in the areas that they think they will get high-value lumber – that’s land they think will be easily accessible, not the land out the back that you can’t get to – and they will be managing the number of sheep versus cattle.”

It’s not known how many local farmers will be downsizing, he noted, but “you could easily see that with the average age of farmers getting older and older”.

Hayes said the price of wool is sitting at a similar dollar value as it was 20 years ago.

According to PGG Wrigtson’s latest auction report, good-quality crossbred fleece wool is bringing in an average of $3.10 per kilogram in the North Island.

In the South Island, the same product was bringing in an average of $3.37 per kilogram.

Grace Prior
Grace Prior
Grace Prior is a senior reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age with a keen interest in environmental issues. Grace is the paper’s health reporter and regularly covers the rural sector, weather, Greater Wellington Regional Council, and coastal stories.

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