Arable agriculture made slow progress. By 1855 some 3,600 acres were in cultivation and only 27,000 acres had been purchased. As in the other “Wakefield” settlements of New Zealand, there were many more labourers than could be employed by the few yeoman farmers and “capitalists”. Men of capital preferred to invest their money in sheep and run them on cheaply rented pasturage lands beyond the settlement block. The provincial council passed new regulations reducing the price of freehold land to 10s. per acre, with provision for £2 worth of improvements before full title could be obtained. This helped the small settler to obtain land, but the price was too high for the graziers. Reinforced by men of Australian experience, they continued to press inland with their Merino flocks, burning the country as they went.
In 1854–55 the “pastoral invasion” spread into the rich, grassy plains and downlands of North Otago and into the Southland Plain, and little port hamlets grew up at Oamaru and Bluff to serve the new communities. Then the tide moved westwards, across the mountain ranges or up the river gorges, to the sunlit basins of Central Otago. By 1861 the last runs were being claimed around the western lakes. Sheep numbers had grown from 60,000 in 1855 to 700,000 in 1861, but the runs were not yet fully stocked. By 1871 there were 3·7 million sheep in Otago or 38 per cent of New Zealand's sheep flock, the highest percentage the province ever attained.
The census of 1861, which was taken just after the separation of Southland, gives an indication of the origins of the early settlers in southern New Zealand before the community had been markedly altered by the gold rushes. Of the overseas-born population of Otago Province, 42 per cent were born in Scotland, 36 per cent in England, 15 per cent in Ireland, and 4 per cent in Australia. In Southland Province the Scottish and Australian elements were stronger – 47 and 13 per cent – and the English and Irish representation smaller – 31 and 7 per cent respectively.