Refrigerated meat shipments
The success of the first shipment of refrigerated meat from Port Chalmers to London in the Dunedin, in 1882, is seen as a watershed in New Zealand’s economic development. Although it was not until the mid-1890s that the country began to experience any real economic benefit from the frozen meat trade, farmers and the government could see its potential from the outset.
Railways and farming
The wheat bonanza of the late 1880s and the rapid growth of the frozen meat trade were only made possible by the expansion of the railways. The first public railway line in New Zealand was opened in Christchurch in 1863. From 1867 the Lyttelton rail tunnel linked the port and Christchurch. By 1879 there were 1282.5 kilometres of line in the South Island, including a main trunk line from Lyttelton to Bluff. The first export cargo of frozen meat in 1882 came from sheep slaughtered near Ōamaru and sent by rail to Port Chalmers.
Many commentators have suggested that refrigeration revolutionised farming in New Zealand. In fact, experiments in cross-breeding and sowing introduced grasses were well advanced in the South Island before 1882. Indeed, these developments enabled farmers, particularly those in Canterbury, to take advantage of the opportunity that refrigerated shipping provided.
Canterbury dominated the frozen meat trade until the First World War. In 1900, 50% of frozen sheep carcasses exported were shipped from Canterbury. By that time, lamb was increasingly important in the frozen meat trade. Over 83% of lamb was shipped from the South Island, again mostly from Canterbury. In 1895 it was noted in newspapers that ‘Canterbury’ had become the standard term for the best class of meat exported from New Zealand, regardless of its actual place of origin.
Rapid expansion of freezing works
The country’s first freezing company was the New Zealand Refrigerating Company, established in Otago in 1881. The next two, both established in 1882, were the Canterbury Frozen Meat Company and the Gear Meat Company in Petone. By the mid-1890s there were 21 freezing works throughout the country, with 12 in the North Island and nine in the south.
The quantity of frozen lamb exported from New Zealand trebled in the first decade of the 20th century, and by 1910 lamb accounted for 65% of all sheep carcasses shipped. In 1908 New Zealand exported around 30% of the lambs born in any one season, making it unique among the world’s meat-producing countries. This was because in the early years of the frozen meat trade farmers exported so many sheep they had to turn to shipping lambs, as that was all the stock they had available. Farmers then began selecting sheep for early maturity and improved the quality of the feed, so that lambs could be ready for slaughter before they were seven months old.
North Island bush country
Initially, the South Island profited from the introduction of refrigeration because the basic system of breeding and fattening suitable sheep breeds was already in place. In the North Island, the new trade helped to reshape agricultural production – dairying became the predominant industry on the better lowlands, while sheep and beef farming expanded into the hill country, as new settlers battled to turn bush into farms.
Transforming the bush
Between 1892 and 1900, the Liberal government acquired 3.15 million acres (1.3 million hectares) of Māori land, which it made available to Pākehā settlers. This began a massive transformation of North Island hill country from bush to pasture, which continued into the 1920s. Settlers pushed into more remote and steeper hills, which were marginal for farming.
Settlers felled and burned the bush, and sowed grass seed on the ashes. Initially, results were spectacular, as pasture grew lush on the fertile soils.
Cattle played a vital role in the hill country, controlling rank pasture and preventing bush regrowth. Lincoln sheep were initially popular but were eventually replaced by Romney sheep, which were more active in the hills and produced better wool. On flat country, Lincolns were replaced by dairy cattle.
During this pioneering phase, mutton and wool were the main sources of income for sheep farmers. In 1910 the South Island produced 68% of the exported frozen lamb, whereas the North Island produced 66% of the frozen mutton. North Island farmers kept sheep for longer before slaughter than their South Island counterparts, as the sheep didn’t fatten as quickly on the lower-quality hill pastures.