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Sheep farming

by  Hugh Stringleman and Robert Peden

Sheep farming was crucial in the development of New Zealand's economy, and for 130 years was the most important agricultural industry.

Importance of the sheep industry

Early importance

Sheep farming has been crucial in the development of New Zealand’s economy. The export returns from fine wool grown on the open grasslands of the South Island provided the impetus for economic growth until the 1880s. From 1882, the frozen meat industry created new opportunities for sheep farmers. Initially the trade was dominated by South Island farmers. However, as land in the North Island was transferred from Māori to European settlers and the bush was cleared, the whole country began to share in the new prosperity from the start of the 20th century.

From Bradford to microns

Spinners in Bradford, England developed a system for measuring the fineness of wool by the number of hanks that could be spun from it. A hank was 560 yards (512 metres) of yarn. A pound (0.45kg) of fine merino wool might spin 22 miles and 480 yards of yarn. This would be equal to 70 hanks, so the wool would be graded as having a ‘count’ of 70. More coarse wools have a lower ‘count’. In the late 1970s the actual diameter of wool fibres, measured in microns (one-thousandths of a millimetre), replaced the Bradford wool count.

Returns from sheep farming

From 1856 to 1987, sheep farming was the most important agricultural industry in New Zealand – in fact, wool was the country’s single most valuable export for 89 of the 112 years between 1856 and 1967. The combined income from wool and sheep meat dominated New Zealand’s agricultural earnings from the mid-1880s until the late 1980s.

Move to dairying

Since then, dairying has overtaken sheep farming. From 1992, returns from the dairy industry exceeded those from sheep production. Sheep numbers peaked at 70.3 million in 1982, but had fallen to 25.3 million by 2021. However, New Zealand remained the world’s largest exporter of sheep meat and cross-bred (strong) wool.

The establishment phase

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.

The Merino – the earliest breed

History in Europe

For centuries, the ancient Merino breed had been renowned in Spain for its fine wool. The Merino industry was so valuable that the penalty for exporting the sheep was death. After the Peninsular campaign of the Napoleonic wars disrupted Spanish society in 1807–14, the wool industry declined and Merinos spread throughout Europe, North America and Australia.

Merinos on the move

The Mesta, a powerful organisation of Spanish Merino owners, grazed their huge flocks on Spain’s southern plains in winter and the northern highlands in summer. Similarly, on the big sheep stations in New Zealand’s South Island high country, the animals are often shifted seasonally to the high mountains in summer, and down to the valleys before winter – a system called transhumance.

Merinos in New Zealand

The Merino was the first sheep breed brought to New Zealand in large numbers. The Australian sheep industry was based on Merinos, and from the 1840s to early 1860s thousands were transported across the Tasman Sea. They were not always good quality, so New Zealand breeders imported small numbers from Germany, France, Britain and the US to improve the stock. By the early 1880s the New Zealand Merino had become a distinct type.

Rich results

George Rich, who emigrated to New Zealand in 1840, became one of the world’s top Merino breeders. In1858 he toured Europe to find the best flocks, and imported sheep from Prussia and France to improve his stud. In 1861 he exported 28 ewes and rams from New Zealand to the famous French Merino flock at Rambouillet. Two years later, his son sold a ram in Sydney for £300 – a record price.

Merino problems


Pastoralists and farmers soon discovered that Merinos were prone to footrot in warm moist conditions. Originating from a semi-arid land, the breed was not resistant to the disease. Footrot infects the tissue inside the hoof – in severe cases, the horny part can detach from the rest of the foot. Infection can result in weight loss, reduced productivity and death. Settlers on small farms in wet districts or with heavy soils found they could not keep Merinos.

Unsuitability for meat production

For centuries, Merinos had been bred only for their wool, without considering meat production. The animals are lean and slow to mature, and settlers found them unsuitable for producing meat, compared with British breeds. By the early 1870s pastoralists had no outlet for their surplus sheep, except boiling them down for tallow (rendered fat, used for making soap and candles). The Merino was too lean to make this profitable, so, like small farmers, pastoralists looked to other breeds that would provide a better return.

Mixed-blood Merinos

In 1868 the manager of the Levels sheep station in South Canterbury mated a line of Merino ewes with English Leicester rams as an experiment. The results were so successful that by 1879 only 6,300 of the 80,000 sheep shorn on the station were pure Merinos.

The shift away from Merinos

Merinos were the basis of the New Zealand sheep flock, so breeders who wanted to change their type of sheep had to cross-breed their Merino ewes with a British-breed sire. Small farmers began cross-breeding sheep in the 1840s to overcome footrot and to produce a sheep with a meatier carcass. In the 1860s, some South Island pastoralists also experimented with cross-breeding.

The new fashion for worsted cloth in Britain, Europe and America encouraged this change. The process for making the fabric required long wool with good tensile strength that could be mechanically combed without breaking. The machinery of the time could not use short, fine Merino wool, but wool from half-bred sheep – the first cross of a Merino and a long-wool breed – proved ideal. Half-bred wool provided better returns for growers.

In the early 2000s, New Zealand had about 3 million Merinos out of a total 39 million sheep.

Early imports of British sheep breeds

The different environments across Britain led to the development of a remarkable variety of sheep breeds. They can be divided into two main types: the long-wools, such as the Leicester, Lincoln and Romney; and the short-wools, such as the Southdown and similar down breeds (sheep from the southern English downs).

The woolsack

Historically, the wool trade was vitally important to the English economy. Since the 1300s, this has been symbolised by the Lord Chancellor’s seat in the House of Lords being known as the woolsack.

Sheep in Britain

In the late 18th century Robert Bakewell, manager of the Dishley estate from 1760 to 1795, began a fashion for improving livestock. He set out to produce meatier, faster-maturing sheep through inbreeding. Following Bakewell, other breeders developed new breeds and established the pedigree system of stock breeding. One unforeseen outcome was that as the sheep got bigger, their wool became coarser. This decline in British wool quality, along with the increased production of English woollen mills, created a demand for Australian and New Zealand wools.

English Leicester

Bakewell crossed the Leicester, an old breed, with the Lincoln Longwool and produced the Dishley Leicester, later known as the English Leicester. This breed was first imported to the North Island in 1843 in the hope of avoiding footrot. It was crossed with the Merino to produce lambs with a meaty carcass and high-quality wool. There are about 15,000 pure English Leicester sheep in New Zealand.


The Lincoln was well adapted to the cold, wet conditions of the Lincolnshire fens (low, marshy areas). It was one of the largest British sheep, and grew a coarse fleece. Lincolns were brought to New Zealand in the early 1860s, and were popular in wetter districts and on heavy soils. At one time they were the most common breed in the North Island because of their hardiness and foraging ability while the bush was being cleared.

Lincolns were also popular in the South Island, where they were cross-bred with Merinos for damp country. However, their wool was stronger and less valuable than that of other breeds, so in time they fell out of favour. In the early 2000s there were about 10,000 in New Zealand.

Romney Marsh

The Romney Marsh was native to the exposed, low-lying country along the coast of Kent, which has cold bleak winters and coarse wet feed in summer. The breed was introduced into New Zealand in 1853 and became popular because of its resistance to footrot. By the end of the 19th century it had replaced the Lincoln as the most popular breed in the North Island, and was favoured in Southland and the wetter parts of Otago. The Romney was later developed into the New Zealand Romney, and made up around two-thirds of the national flock in the early 2000s.


The Cheviot is named after the Cheviot Hills in the border country between England and Scotland, and is well adapted to that cold, harsh area. The breed was brought to New Zealand in 1845. It was popular in Southland and Otago for crossing with Merinos, producing a halfbred that could cope with cold hill country. In 2007, Cheviot numbers were about 12,000.

Designer lambs

Robert Bakewell systematised livestock breeding. Before his time, ewes and rams were often run together throughout the year, resulting in random breeding. Bakewell mated rams and ewes that had particular qualities he wanted. Then he mated the best of the progeny together – a process called inbreeding – and culled animals with undesirable traits. Bakewell’s deliberate methods revolutionised stock breeding.

Border Leicester

The Border Leicester is also from the Borders, and was bred from a cross between the English Leicester and the Cheviot. The Border Leicester was imported to New Zealand in 1859. It is well regarded for its high fertility and has been widely used in cross-breeding. There are around 110,000 pure Border Leicester sheep in New Zealand.

Other breeds

Many other British breeds have been brought in at various times. Most have been used for crossing to improve the meat quality and fattening ability of the existing sheep flock.

The Southdown was introduced in 1842, and was cross-bred to produce fast-maturing lambs for the meat trade. Other down breeds – the Suffolk, Dorset Down, and Hampshire – remain popular as terminal sires (producing animals for meat, not to breed from).

The Cotswold was another early import (1840), but is no longer found in New Zealand. The Shropshire was introduced in 1864 and was popular as a fat-lamb sire in the early days of the frozen meat trade, but was superseded by the Southdown around the start of the 20th century.

The refrigerated meat trade

Beginnings of the trade

The first shipment of frozen meat was sent from New Zealand to England in 1882. It was a turning point for New Zealand’s economic history, and for sheep farming. At first, an international depression kept prices low, and the trade was not consistently profitable until the mid-1890s. But farmers realised that, once shipping became more efficient and costs went down, the trade would provide a profitable outlet for the country’s surplus sheep. The industry grew quickly: in 1895 New Zealand exported 2.3 million sheep carcasses; in 1900, 3.3 million; and in 1910, 5.8 million.

Not all plain sailing

The 1882 voyage of the Dunedin with its cargo of frozen meat has been described as a turning point in New Zealand’s history. However, sparks from the engine that drove the refrigerating machinery set the ship’s sails alight twice. When the ducts for cold air that kept the cargo frozen became blocked, the captain crawled down them to clear out the ice. By the time the ship reached London, he was – not surprisingly – described as looking overstrained and weary.

Smaller farms

Refrigerated shipping made small farms viable. The Liberal government was elected in 1890 with a policy of ‘bursting up’ the great estates (dividing them into smaller farms). In the South Island, between 1891 and 1912, the government bought 1,296,942 acres (524,800 hectares) from 223 estates. In the North Island 2.3 million acres (930,000 hectares) of Māori land were purchased for Pākehā settlers. In 1892 John McKenzie, the minister of lands, established the Department of Agriculture to help spread farming knowledge.

Expansion of farming

Land was farmed more intensively, and farming practices were fine-tuned and improved. In the North Island, settlers cleared more bush and sowed grasses and clovers. In the South Island, tussock country was ploughed and turned into pasture. Turnips that had been sown for winter feed were used to fatten sheep, and larger areas were planted. In Southland, wetlands were drained, cultivated, and sown in pasture. Blood-and-bone, a by-product of the freezing works, and superphosphate became more widely used to fertilise pastures and feed crops.

The basic systems set up in the 20 years after the frozen meat trade began have lasted into the 2000s.


Cross-breeding was well established in New Zealand before 1882. After the frozen meat trade began, the practice increased, and Merinos were soon marginalised to the semi-arid and mountainous country of the South Island. By 1900, 86% of the national flock were defined in government statistics as crossbreds and other longwools. By 1912 this had increased to 93%.

Different breeds for different country

The move to cross-breeding and the intensification in farming methods encouraged farmers to find breeds that suited their local environments. However, regardless of the type of country, New Zealand breeders wanted a dual-purpose sheep. Factors related to meat production – the number of lambs born, growth rate and carcass conformation – were important, but so was wool.

New Zealand sheep breeds

The Corriedale – New Zealand’s first breed

The Corriedale’s origins lie in early experiments in crossing Merinos with long-wool breeds. James Little, who managed Corriedale Station in North Otago, began trying to establish a fixed inbred halfbred (a halfbred which breeds true to type) in 1868 when he mated over 600 Merino ewes with Romney rams. Later he continued his experiments crossing long-wool Lincoln and Leicester rams with Merinos. At the Levels Station, William Soltau Davidson began a similar breeding programme in 1874 using Lincoln rams. By the 1890s the inbred halfbred was already widely known as the Corriedale, and this name was officially sanctioned by the New Zealand Sheep Breeders’ Association in 1905.

Jamie had a little lamb

There was much debate about whether a sheep like the Corriedale could be bred. It was known that sheep could be cross-bred to produce animals for fattening – but some argued that when breeding for wool, there was too much variation after the first cross. Experts from England, Europe and New Zealand doubted that anyone could develop an inbred halfbred that remained true to type. James Little, a practical man, just went ahead and did it.

From the outset the Corriedale was bred for both wool and meat. Its wool is long and medium-to-fine with a well-defined crimp, and found a ready market in the worsted trade. The Corriedale is more fecund than the Merino, and its lambs mature early to produce a well-muscled carcass.

The Corriedale was bred for the plains and gentle hills of the drier eastern districts of both the North and South islands. The breed is also farmed in North and South America, Australia and Eastern Europe. It now vies with the Merino as the world’s most popular sheep breed. In the early 2000s there were about 2.8 million Corriedales in New Zealand and 100 million worldwide.


The Halfbred, or ‘colonial’ Halfbred, was bred in an attempt to retain the Merino’s wool quality, foraging ability and hardiness, while increasing its lamb production and improving its carcass conformation for the meat trade.

Unlike the Corriedale – which was inbred after the initial cross of a Merino and a long-wool – the Merino influence is maintained in the halfbred. Commonly, a Merino is crossed with a Romney or English Leicester to produce a first-cross halfbred ram, which is then mated with a halfbred ewe flock. The Halfbred can cope with harder conditions than the Corriedale, and is found in the South Island foothills and high country. The national flock was around 1.8 million in the early 2000s.

Looks aren’t everything

Early 20th-century photos of a New Zealand Romney show a big, bold sheep with a clean face and legs – a type well suited to hills and hard country. By the 1960s, the Romney was shorter in the leg, narrower in the pelvis, and covered in wool from its nose to its toes. Over the years the stud industry had concentrated on the breed’s physical appearance, ignoring its productive qualities – so the Romney’s vigour, hardiness and fertility declined.

New Zealand Romney

By the early 1900s the Romney in New Zealand was distinctly different from the Kentish Romney from which it was bred, although the name New Zealand Romney was not formally adopted until 1956. When English breeders shifted their emphasis to meat production the sheep got bigger, but wool quality declined. Wool remained vitally important for New Zealand farmers, so local breeders selected their sheep for both wool and meat production.

The Romney is suited to high rainfall and heavy soils, and has the highest resistance to footrot of any breed in New Zealand. It grows a heavy fleece used in carpets, furnishings and knitting yarns. The Romney was the single most popular breed in New Zealand through the 20th century. It made up 68% of the national flock in the early 2000s.


In 1929, F. W. Dry began researching inherited traits of wool at Massey College. He found that some Romney sheep were genetically disposed to produce a heavily medullated (hairy) fleece, useful in carpets. The Drysdale, which became a commercial breed in the 1960s, grows the coarsest wool of any sheep in New Zealand, and because the fleece grows so quickly it is usually shorn twice a year. It is also used for meat. Numbers stood at 600,000 in the early 2000s.


Farmers found that Romneys struggled in the steep hill country of the North Island. Geoffrey Peren experimented with crossing the hardy Cheviot over the Romney, and developed the Perendale, which was registered as a separate breed in 1960. The Perendale is naturally more fertile than the Romney. It is hardier and a better forager, and needs less shepherding. It is now a popular dual-purpose sheep in the North Island, and in colder and wetter parts of the South Island. In the early 2000s there were 3–4 million Perendales in New Zealand.


The Coopworth was bred from a cross between the Romney and the Border Leicester by Ian Coop of Lincoln College in the 1960s. The Border Leicester added fertility and mothering ability to the mix. The breed has replaced the Romney on wetter lowlands and easy hill country because of its improved productivity. The national Coopworth flock was around 7 million in the early 2000s.

Changes from the 20th century

The grassland revolution

By the beginning of the 20th century, New Zealand’s sheep-farming industry was geared up to produce meat for the British market and wool for the worsted trade centred around Bradford, England.

The next 80 years were more of the same – more wool and more meat. Applying science to agriculture led to ‘the grassland revolution’, where the New Zealand countryside was increasingly turned over to growing more and better grasses for livestock production. Agronomists, plant breeders, soil scientists, geneticists and animal breeders all contributed to increasing sheep numbers and improving production per sheep.

The golden years

The two decades after the Second World War were the golden years for New Zealand sheep farmers. Experiments in 1948 showed that fertiliser could be successfully spread from aeroplanes, and commercial aerial topdressing began in 1949, increasing the productivity of hill country.

In the post-war period Britain took all the meat and wool New Zealand could produce. As a result, sheep numbers increased by 40% between 1951 and 1961.

The end of the golden weather

By the early 1970s the outlook for sheep farming was not good. In 1973 Britain joined the European Economic Community, and the first ‘oil shock’ occurred, raising the costs of transport and production. Wool prices fell because of competition from synthetic fibres and changes in fashion – the start of a decline from which they have never recovered.

Government subsidies kept farming buoyant despite the falling prices and increasing costs. In 1982 sheep numbers peaked at 70,301,461. In 1985–86 the government abruptly removed all subsidies for farmers, and sheep numbers dropped precipitously. Ten years after their historic peak they had fallen 25%, and in the next decade they fell another 25%. In 2021, New Zealand had about 26 million sheep.

Farmers respond

Sheep farmers have responded to the new economic environment by becoming more efficient and changing the focus of their production. For some, wool has become almost a liability as the costs of shearing and marketing leave little profit. For these farmers, breeding dual-purpose sheep has been replaced by a focus on prime lamb production using new sheep breeds.

Performance-based selection

Others have looked to improve their sheep by shifting away from selecting on type to performance-based selection, which focuses on traits such as wool weight, fertility and lamb growth rates. A National Flock Recording Scheme was set up in 1967, administered by the Department of Agriculture. It was revamped in 1976 as Sheeplan, and by the early 1980s half a million ewes and 1,300 ram-breeding flocks were having their performance recorded annually. Since 2002 the scheme has been run by Sheep Improvement Ltd, a division of Meat and Wool New Zealand. A genetic database provides breeding values and other genetic information, helping breeders and ram buyers to select more productive sheep.

Group breeding schemes

Group breeding schemes have also been set up, based on mandatory performance recording. The Central Districts Romney Group was established in 1969 to improve the productivity of Romney flocks in the central North Island. One member of the group lifted his flock’s lambing performance from 90% to 150% through genetic improvements. Many Romney breeders have supported regional group breeding schemes, and the Coopworth Society (of Coopworth breeders) made performance recording mandatory when it was set up in 1968. Weight and average fibre diameter of wool, liveweight, numbers of lambs surviving to weaning, and weaning weights are some of the traits measured by farmers. Each of these has a known hereditability score, which measures the likelihood of a trait being passed on.

21st-century wool

In the early 2000s, just over 80% of New Zealand wool was from cross-bred animals. Merino wool accounted for 5–7%, and Corriedale/halfbred types about 10–12%. Wool purchased by European, North American and Australian buyers was usually shipped to China, where it was spun into yarn – lower labour costs have made China the world’s centre for wool spinning.

Artificial breeding

Performance recording has transformed the stud sheep industry since the 1980s. Once the top-ranked sheep are found, their superior genes can be used widely through artificial breeding. Artificial insemination and ova transplants have improved the genetic bases of studs, which then sell improved rams to commercial breeders.

The shift in emphasis to selecting a sheep on its performance has helped lift the productivity of the national flock. Between 1992 and 2002 the number of breeding ewes and hoggets in New Zealand fell by 24%, yet between 1993 and 2003 the tonnage of lamb meat processed increased by 22.4%.

Recently introduced breeds

The sheep breeds brought into New Zealand in recent years have been crossed with existing breeds to lift the number of lambs per ewe, increase growth rates, and improve carcass conformation.


This breed originated in the Netherlands and was released commercially in New Zealand in 1990. Texel-cross lambs are noted for their well-muscled and lean carcasses with a high meat-to-bone ratio. Wool weights are low, compared with traditional New Zealand breeds.


Native to Finland, the Finn or Finnish Landrace breed is highly fertile, with a lambing percentage around 260 (2.6 lambs per ewe). It was released in New Zealand in 1990 and is used for cross-breeding to produce more fertile ewes, which are then crossed with a terminal sire (a sire used to breed animals for meat, not for further breeding). The fleece is much finer, but also much lighter, than Romney wool.

East Friesian

The East Friesian is from northern Holland and Germany, where it was bred as a milking sheep. Its fecundity and milking ability make it useful for crossing to improve those traits in other breeds. The East Friesian was imported into New Zealand in 1992, but it was not released commercially until 1996.

Wiltshire Horn

The Wiltshire Horn is an ancient breed and was used in the development of various down breeds in 19th-century England. It is used for crossing to produce lambs with rapid growth rates and lean, heavy carcasses. The Wiltshire Horn was first introduced into New Zealand in 1972. It grows very little wool, and sheds its fleece annually.

Composite breeds

In the early 2000s many sheep farmers moved away from individual breeds to take advantage of the various traits of different breeds. Cross-breeding has always been important in New Zealand, and this has been taken further to develop composite breeds. One example is the Kelso. The goal of its breeding programme is production, rather than appearance and structure.

Environment and sheep farming

The climate and topography of New Zealand’s sheep farms have led to differences in farm management. There are three main types of land.

High country

The high country has long cold winters and regular snowfalls, which in some years can be heavy and cause high stock losses. Pastures are mostly unimproved tussock and adventive grasses (grasses that are not deliberately planted) such as browntop and sweet vernal. Areas of better soils are cultivated to grow feed crops and improved pastures, often harvested as hay and silage. Irrigation has become widespread for more reliable summer production.

Fine wool from Merino or Halfbred sheep is the main source of income for high-country farmers. Some cross a terminal sire with some of their ewes to produce lambs for the meat trade. Surplus sheep are sold to farmers on rolling hill country and lowlands to breed cross-bred lambs, or for fattening.

Hill country

Hill country makes up vast areas of pastoral land in the North and South islands. This land is the engine room of New Zealand sheep farming – more sheep and cattle are bred and run there than on any other class of farmland. Before the 1950s, when aerial topdressing and aerial oversowing with grasses and clovers began, hill-country farming was often a marginal enterprise.

North Island hill country has traditionally been dominated by Romneys. In the South Island, the halfbred and Corriedale are found in the drier areas, and the Romney in wetter parts. The hill country can be further subdivided into three classes – easy, medium and hard – according to the steepness of the hills and the length of the growing season.

On hard hill country, farmers run breeding stock. Their income is from wool and the sale of store sheep (sheep to be fattened for slaughter) and cattle to be finished on the easier hills and lowlands. The Perendale was bred to replace Romneys in this type of country.

Medium hill country is used to finish lambs and older sheep for the meat trade, and wool remains an important product.

Easy hill country allows farmers more flexibility in their production choices. Many breed and finish sheep and cattle. In good seasons, farmers on easy hill country also buy in stock for finishing. Cross-breeding to improve productive traits is becoming more common. The easy hills are also the home of stud sheep enterprises, which breed rams for the hard and medium hill country.


The plains, river valleys and easy rolling hills of the North and South islands are the home of intensive sheep farming. In the 2000s, this land has been increasingly given over to dairy farming and horticulture, and in some areas vineyards. Lowland farmers generally finish stock bought off the hill and high country on fodder crops and special pasture mixes. Cattle and sheep studs are also farmed on lowland country.

The seasonal round

Work on sheep farms is largely regulated by the seasons.


In winter, most sheep farms carry their lowest number of stock. In the high country and harder hills, farmers feed hay and silage to supplement the animals’ diet. On easier country, sheep are break fed (a feeding method where animals are fenced into part of a paddock) on fodder crops and saved pasture. Farms that specialise in finishing sheep for meat production continue to supply the butchers’ market and the export trade.

Ewes are scanned to check for pregnancy. Barren ewes are culled, while those carrying twins or triplets are given preferential feeding.


Farmers who rely on wool as a main source of income shear their ewes before lambing, as the stresses of bearing and raising lambs can weaken the wool and lower its value. In colder regions, sheep are shorn with blades or a cover-comb, leaving enough wool for protection from storms.

Farmers try to time lambing to match the first flush of grass growth, as ewes need good feed to produce milk. On rough country, farmers allocate a certain number of ewes to each paddock or block and leave them to lamb unattended. On easier country, farmers often shift the lambing mob daily, leaving behind the ewes that have recently given birth and their lambs. In this way ewes with lambs are given the best feed available.

A week or two after lambing, ewes and lambs are taken to the tailing yards, where the ewes are separated from the lambs and drenched with an anthelmintic to kill intestinal worms. Each lamb is caught, vaccinated against clostridial diseases (bacterial diseases such as tetanus), and given a worm drench and an ear mark to identify its farm. Then its tail is docked with a sharp knife, searing iron or rubber ring which stops the blood supply. Ram lambs are castrated using a knife or rubber rings. Finally, before the lamb returns to its mother, its rump is sprayed with a chemical to prevent fly strike (flies laying their eggs on a living animal).


Lambs are weaned off their mothers at about three months of age. The ewes and lambs are mustered into the permanent yards and drafted (separated into groups). On lowland farms and easy hills, some of the lambs will be ‘prime’ – ready to be killed for meat. The main mob of weaned lambs are drenched, dipped against fly strike and put onto the best pasture available, which on better country might include specialist crops for finishing the animals. Over the summer the lambs are brought in every few weeks and the prime animals drafted off for the freezing works. On hard hill and high country, lambs not required to maintain the flock are sold as stores (animals to be fattened for slaughter) at weaning or grazed for a month or so, before being sold to farmers to be finished on better country.

At weaning the ewes are culled, with the older sheep and poorer types being sold off. Old ewes from hard hills and high country are often bought by farmers on easy country, kept for a year or two, and mated to a terminal sire to breed prime lambs.

Telling a sheep’s age

Lambs are born with four pairs of incisors. At about a year they start growing their adult teeth – first a pair of incisors, so a one-year-old sheep is known as a two-tooth. After this, they grow a pair of incisors every year until they have four pairs. So a two-year-old sheep is a four-tooth and a three-year-old is a six-tooth. When it has all its incisors the sheep is said to have a ‘full mouth’.


Ewes are mated in autumn. Before mating they are ‘flushed’ – given better feeding to lift their body weight – to increase their fertility. Ewes are usually crutched before mating – the discoloured wool and dags from around the tail are removed. On some farms the belly wool is also shorn so the sheep can move about more freely in wet and muddy conditions.

Ewes and rams are often selectively mated, with the rams chosen to improve particular qualities that the ewe might lack, such as density or fineness of wool, or body size.

Most farmers leave rams with the ewes for up to six weeks. Some farmers fix harnesses with coloured crayons on the rams – as he mounts the ewe the crayon leaves a coloured patch on her rump. After mating, the ewes’ feeding is controlled at a level that maintains their body weight, so farmers can use their feed efficiently and save any surplus for winter.

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How to cite this page: Hugh Stringleman and Robert Peden, 'Sheep farming', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 April 2024)

Story by Hugh Stringleman and Robert Peden, published 24 November 2008, updated 1 March 2015