Story: Sheep farming

Page 2. The establishment phase

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The first sheep

British navigator James Cook brought sheep to New Zealand on his voyages in 1773 and 1777, but they did not become established. Missionary Samuel Marsden had more success when he brought sheep from New South Wales to the Bay of Islands in 1814, although the flock remained small and did not spread beyond the mission stations. John Bell imported 103 sheep to Mana Island, north of Wellington, in 1834 to provide fresh meat for whalers.

The pastoral pioneers

The real foundations of sheep farming were laid in Wairarapa, Canterbury and Otago in the early 1840s. In 1843 and 1844 Charles Bidwill, Charles Clifford, William Vavasour and Henry Petre shipped 1,600 sheep from Australia to New Zealand. In 1844 they drove about 950 animals around the coast from Wellington to Wairarapa.

William and John Deans introduced the first sheep onto the Canterbury Plains when they brought Merinos from Sydney to their Riccarton farm in 1843. In 1844 Johnny Jones, who had established a whaling station at Waikouaiti in Otago in 1839, ran 2,000 sheep on land he leased from Māori.

Growth of pastoralism

The expansion of large-scale sheep farming in the North Island was restricted by several factors. Māori owned much of the land, clearing the heavy bush cover was laborious, and the relatively high rainfall did not suit Merino sheep.

The drier eastern region of the South Island was more attractive for prospective sheep farmers. Most of the land had been bought from Māori by 1857. Once the shrubs and tall tussock were burned off, the grasses and herbs were ideal for grazing.

In 1847, Charles Clifford and Frederick Weld transferred 3,000 sheep from Wairarapa to the northern east coast of the South Island. Their run, Flaxbourne, was a huge block of land stretching from north of the Awatere River to Kēkerengū. Pastoralism – running fine-woolled sheep on large tracts of land leased cheaply from the Crown – expanded rapidly in the South Island, stimulated by the demand for fine wool from the textile industries of Britain, Europe and the US. By about 1866, pastoralists had taken up all the land in the South Island suited to running sheep, from the coast to the main divide.

Squatters and cockies

The terms squatters and cockies – both meaning farmers – came to New Zealand from the Australian colonies. In Australia, pastoralism expanded ahead of organised settlement. Pastoralists (sheep farmers) simply took over large areas of land without any licence or legal right, so they were known as squatters. Cockies were small farmers who tilled the land – scratching the ground like cockatoos. In New Zealand, pastoralism expanded under a licensing system, so the farmers were not really squatters.

Small farmers

In the 19th century extensive pastoralism dominated the sheep industry in the South Island, Wairarapa and Hawke’s Bay. However, small farmers near settlements played an important role in the development of sheep breeding. Where pastoralists ran Merinos for their fine wool, farmers produced food for local towns. Merinos were not suited for meat production, or to the heavy soils of the small farms. So small farmers began to import British breeds of sheep, which better met their needs.

How to cite this page:

Hugh Stringleman and Robert Peden, 'Sheep farming - The establishment phase', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Hugh Stringleman and Robert Peden, published 24 Nov 2008, updated 1 Mar 2015