New Zealand’s ratio of sheep to humans at lowest point in 170 years

Farmers turning to forestry and the fall in the price of wool are being blamed for the ratio of sheep to people falling below five to one

New Zealand’s ratio of sheep to people has dropped below five to one for the first time since national population records began in the late 1850s.

The vast ovine herds that outnumber human New Zealanders are a long-running joke outside the country; one of a few nuggets of information about New Zealand – alongside its links to The Lord of the Rings and Jacinda Ardern – that is know by the rest of the world.

The country once had enough sheep to provide a small flock for every person, with the ratio peaking at 22 sheep for every human in the early 1980s. But with international wool markets in long decline, and forestry emerging as a more lucrative use of the land, sheep numbers in New Zealand have been dropping.

National data released this week showed the national flock was 25.3m at June 2022 – a drop of 400,000, or 2% compared with the year before. With New Zealand’s estimated human population at 5.15 million, it was the lowest ratio of sheep to people since the 1850s, when national sheep numbers were first recorded, said Jason Attewell​, Stats NZ general manager of economic and environment insights.

He noted that New Zealand remained ahead of Australia in maintaining its sheep-to-person crown. “Australia currently has three times as many sheep as New Zealand, though their ratio is only around three sheep to every Aussie,” Attewell said.

The global wool price has dropped significantly over the last decade: average export prices for New Zealand wool almost halved between 2013 and 2021, dropping from $6.74 a kilogram to $3.77. A price crash during the pandemic saw UK farmers getting an average price of just 32p a kilogram for wool – barely covering the cost of shearing.

In New Zealand, an increasing number of high country sheep farmers have been selling farms or converting them to forestry, which, with the prospect of selling carbon offsets, now offers high returns.

A 2022 independent report commissioned by farmers’ advocacy group Beef and Lamb NZ found that 175,000 hectares of whole sheep and beef farms had been sold with the intent to convert into forestry since 2017. It concluded that carbon-only farming was “a major driver of the increase in farm sales”, and from 2020-21 accounted for 39% of farm sales to forestry.


Tess McClure in Auckland

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Foraging takes hold in New Zealand’s wild places
As food prices rise, communities in Christchurch are mapping out local fruit and nut trees and learning how to tell good mushrooms from bad

Tess McClure in Christchurch

11, Apr, 2022 @11:38 PM

Article image
New Zealand sheep numbers fall to their lowest for 75 years
Farmers switch to diary - but sheep still outnumber people sixfold

Kate Shuttleworth in Wellington

07, Jan, 2015 @5:04 AM

Article image
New Zealand farmers may pay for greenhouse gas emissions under world-first plans
By 2025, farmers would pay a levy on emissions from sources such as cow burps and gases from their urine under proposals released by Jacinda Ardern

Eva Corlett in Wellington

11, Oct, 2022 @1:34 AM

Article image
Kiwi wars: the golden fruit fuelling a feud between New Zealand and China
One firm’s attempt to regain control of illegal cultivation shows Wellington’s lack of leverage over its largest trade partner

Tess McClure in Wellington

18, Jun, 2021 @8:00 PM

Article image
Urban forests create birdlife boom in New Zealand’s cities
Wellington’s huge eco-sanctuary is credited with boosting bird populations across the city and fostering a sense of pride in conservation

Eva Corlett in Wellington

20, May, 2022 @7:00 PM

Article image
Remote, beautiful, lacking in plumbing: New Zealand’s beloved loos with views
Aotearoa’s wild landscapes are world-famous but spectacular views are not confined to the walking trails – long-drop toilets also boast incredible panoramas

Eva Corlett in Wellington

18, Dec, 2021 @6:00 PM

Article image
Many of New Zealand’s glaciers could disappear in a decade, scientists warn
Glaciers becoming ‘smaller and more skeletal’, annual end-of-summer survey of the snowline finds

Eva Corlett in Wellington

30, Mar, 2022 @11:27 PM

Article image
Sheep shorn of 18kg fleece after three years on the lam
Elusive New Zealand merino sheep named Shrekapo was caught after years in the wilderness and relieved of half his bodyweight in wool

Eva Corlett in Wellington

19, Apr, 2022 @4:04 AM

Article image
New Zealand’s dairy industry should stop using Māori culture to pretend it’s sustainable | Philip McKibbin
Dairying is not simply unsustainable, it also violates Māori values – including those that call for us to respect the natural world

Philip McKibbin

12, May, 2022 @8:00 PM

Article image
Nineteen years after the ‘fart tax’, New Zealand’s farmers are fighting emissions
After years of tension with policy-makers, will New Zealand manage to deliver its ‘world-first’ scheme to reduce methane and nitrous oxide in agriculture?

Eva Corlett

12, Nov, 2022 @6:00 AM