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Transport of animals

by  Ruth Low

Livestock trucks are a common sight on New Zealand roads, carrying sheep, cattle and deer to saleyards, farms or freezing works. On back roads, farmers still move the odd mob ‘on the hoof’. Stock have been transported around New Zealand since farming began here – by boat, rail and road, or on foot.

Sea transport

Voyage out

Stock were first brought to New Zealand on sailing ships from Britain and Australia. These vessels were not large by today’s standards – some were just over 100 tons, the largest not much more than 500 tons.

Stock were transported in pens, erected on the deck and in the hold. Stock food also had to be carried, and animal waste was dumped in the sea. The seas were often rough, and the voyage from England sometimes took more than 100 days. Many animals died en route. Steam ships, introduced in the 1880s, had larger carrying capacities and were faster.

A watery grave

In 1861 and 1862 over 50,000 sheep were shipped from Australia to Canterbury. A drought in Australia had reduced sheep prices, so it was profitable to ship surplus animals to New Zealand. However, many were in poor condition and did not survive the voyage. The Lyttelton Times complained about ships’ captains throwing dead sheep into the harbour, noting that ‘the whole shore line of the bay … is at the present moment fringed with carcases of putrefying sheep washed ashore by the heavy easterly swell’. 1

Coastal shipping

Fleets of smaller coastal vessels, known as ‘mosquito fleets’, were vital for transport and communication before road and rail links were built. Often farmers relied on these boats to transport their livestock to sales (and later freezing works), or to bring stock to their farms.

Some fleets worked around harbours such as Auckland and Lyttelton, while others sailed around the coasts, braving river bars and travelling inland to river ports such as Kaiapoi and Whanganui. Others worked Cook Strait, linking the North and South islands. As road and rail developed, coastal fleets declined. However, the Cook Strait boats carried stock until 1962, when New Zealand Rail’s roll-on, roll-off ferry service began taking animals across the Strait.

Present-day shipping

In the 2000s, launches and barges transported stock, usually on trucks, from the islands of the Marlborough Sounds and the Hauraki Gulf. Toll New Zealand’s Interislander ferry service and its competitor, Strait Shipping, carried stock trucks across Cook Strait.

The export trade

Exporting livestock began in the 1860s, and is still done by ship. In the 2000s, specially designed livestock ships could carry more than 130,000 sheep or 25,000 cattle. The export of live sheep from New Zealand began again in 1985 after several years of a total ban. Trade was mainly to the Middle East, where live animals are sacrificially killed on religious occasions such as the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).

Numbers exported increased from 416,000 in 1986 to more than a million in 1988–89. After a 1990 shipment in which 12% of the sheep died, a welfare code was introduced to ensure that mortality was no higher than 1%. Powerful ventilation systems, veterinarian checks and animal welfare standards were all part of the shipping process.

The export of livestock for slaughter ceased in 2008, and the export of cattle for breeding purposes will end in 2023.

    • Lyttelton Times, 5 February 1862, p. 4. › Back

Droving – ‘on the hoof’

In the early days of European settlement, moving stock ‘on the hoof’ was the only means of land transport. Rivers, bush, tussock and scrub made the going tough for drovers and their stock. The mountainous terrain of the South Island offered special challenges. A route up the Awatere Valley through what became Molesworth Station provided a link between Marlborough and Canterbury. A coach road built over Arthur’s Pass in 1866 gave drovers easier access to the goldfields of the West Coast.

By the start of the 20th century much of the bush had been cleared for farming and roads were better, making the drover’s job easier. Growing markets for stock and the developing networks of saleyards and freezing works meant steady work for drovers. Much of the work was local – day trips, or short droves of a few days.

Many rivers to cross

In the early days of droving stock the greatest difficulty was crossing rivers. In February 1856 Frederick Wilson and his men spent nine days taking 4,000 sheep across the Rakaia River – getting just 300 across in the first four days and another 600 in the next two. Eventually the main mob crossed in about two hours. When rivers were in flood, men and stock simply had to wait until conditions improved. One mob travelling to Lake Wānaka waited at the Waitaki River for three months until its level fell.

Long droves

The long drove, lasting several weeks to two or three months, has been part of New Zealand’s history from the 1840s until the 1990s. Many long droves were organised by dealers with an eye to making a dollar. Stock, generally cattle, were bought in one region, and driven and fattened on the ‘long acre’ (the grass on the side of the road) for weeks as they travelled slowly to another area.

For example, cattle were bought at the Gisborne sale in autumn, driven to the Rangitīkei or Manawatū over two to three months, and sold in the spring sales in Feilding – hopefully for a profit. While the dealer usually had to pay a drover and holding-paddock fees, he could effectively winter his stock without having to pay for feed.

The big drove

For over 50 years Ken Lewis organised one of New Zealand’s biggest cattle droves. He contracted to collect cattle from stations in the far north, and drove them around 250 kilometres to their new owners at Whāngārei – taking four or five weeks. In 1982, Lewis and his team drove 2,000 cattle at a cost of $9 a head.

Women and children

Droving was largely men’s work, although women and children did help where necessary. It was not uncommon to see a young boy on his pony leading a mob, while watching out for open gates and places where stock might wander away. For many it was a job they grew to love.

With thousands of men overseas during the Second World War, almost 4,000 New Zealand women were recruited into the Land Services. Working as land girls introduced some to the art of droving. Other women worked on family farms, where droving was part of the normal farming activities. Women might also accompany their husbands and help with droves. In the 1960s, a number of families began travelling in caravans on droves. The wife went ahead of the mob in a truck towing the caravan, stopping to make smokos and meals along the way – a luxury for the drover used to roughing it.

Droving in the 2000s

In the early 2000s droving was largely a thing of the past. In some areas the occasional drove still took place, but they were very different from the droves of old. Council bylaws required permits when taking stock through towns, and motorists had to be warned of stock on the road by pilot vehicles with lights flashing or council-approved warning signs.

Ferry across the Pūkaki

The Pūkaki River in the Mackenzie Country was a fast and dangerous torrent that formed a barrier to travellers and stock. Often sheep simply refused to cross the river and shepherds had to carry them over. Ben Ohau Station kept a heavy, five-oared whaleboat for use as a stock and passenger ferry, and sometimes took whole flocks across.

Inland waterways

Before bridges were built, ferries and punts enabled settlers, goods, drovers and stock to cross rivers in relative safety. Sometimes the ferryman simply used a rowboat. On larger, swifter rivers, like the Clutha, punts were more common. With large mobs, the drovers would make many trips to ferry all the stock across the river, and the animals often scattered while workers were busy with the next load. The charge was a set rate per head, with a reduced price for larger numbers.

Isolated communities on some rivers and lakes relied on steamers and launches. The Earnslaw, on Lake Wakatipu, was the best known. The stations around the lake’s shores relied on her to bring supplies and to carry their sheep out to market. Makeshift pens were put on the deck, and animals were loaded up a ramp.

Rail transport

As New Zealand’s railway network developed in the 1870s, it offered a new means of transporting stock. The emphasis was on building the main trunk lines in both islands, but branch lines stretched into farming areas. These allowed stock to be quickly moved to other farms, to saleyards, and, as the freezing industry developed, to the works. Between 1879 and 1884, the railways carried 686,287 animals.

Before trucks were introduced, stock travelled ‘on the hoof’ to the railway and were loaded by the drover. Rural communities soon demanded stockyards and loading ramps at railway stations. Sheep and pigs travelled in 15-foot (4.5-metre), double-deck wagons which held 60 sheep. Cattle wagons were 15-foot, single-decks which could carry eight cattle.

Newer versions of these, first built in the 1940s, were larger – 20 feet (6 metres) long, increasing carrying capacity by over 30%. Later even larger wagons were introduced, which carried 120 sheep or 16 cattle. Horses travelled in horseboxes, in wagons with a carrying capacity of two animals, which later increased to four. Rail sidings at freezing works and ports enabled the quick handling of stock on arrival.

Southland’s Wild West

Mossburn was at the western end of the Southland rail network. Writer Grace Richards remembered it as a quiet place, a ‘two-men-and-a-dog kind of place’. 1 But once a year, when Davey Gunn drove his wild cattle down from the Hollyford Valley to take them by rail to the saleyards at Lorneville, Mossburn was like the Wild West. No one dared get into the yards with Gunn’s cattle; it took men on horseback with stock whips and a lot of bellowing, determination and sweat to load them into the carriages.

The demise of rail

The 1931 Transport Licensing Act and its later amendments established New Zealand Railways as the country’s primary carrier and undermined road transport’s ability to compete. However, this began to change in the early 1950s, when some branch lines were closed. In 1962 trucking regulations were freed up, and the number of animals moved by rail declined. By the early 1970s the railways carried very few livestock.

In 1994 Tranz Rail attempted to revive the railing of livestock when it experimented with carrying stock in crates. However, this experiment failed, as meat works had stripped the railway sidings from their sites.

  1. Grace Richards, ‘The railways ran our life.’ In Open country muster: people and places out of town: a fifth selection, edited by Jim Henderson. Wellington: Reed, 1974, p. 42. › Back


Early obstacles

The livestock trucking industry did not have an easy start. In the 1930s legislation limited road transport to moving stock from farm to rail, except in areas with no rail service. The number of licences open to trucking firms was limited. Fuel restrictions, tyre shortages and the government’s right to second vehicles for the war effort slowed the growth of road transport during the Second World War. At the same time, the government had less money to invest in infrastructure, and rural areas often had inadequate roads.

However, in the post-war years the government began to expand and upgrade the country’s highway system. Between 1945 and 1955 the number of trucks in the country more than doubled. In 1961 regulation changes enabled the livestock trucking industry to compete with the railways.

The great escape

Vernon Wright recalled a cattle beast making a brave escape from a truck when he was driving a mob of cattle past it on road in Northland. ‘[A] stock transporter drives past at about 50 kph; a young heifer pulls itself over the top fence of the truck and leaps the four metres to the ground. It lands on its neck and shoulder, lies stunned for a second or two, then clambers to its feet, shakes itself, and joins in with [the] herd.’ 1

The growth of the trucking industry

Transporting stock by truck began in a small way in the 1920s and grew in the 1930s as trucks became more reliable, with bigger engines, heavier suspension and better tyres. Lorries had simple flat decks, with detachable wooden stock crates. Most crates had two decks for carrying lambs and sheep. They could hold 100–120 lambs or 80 ewes.

Despite the limited numbers that trucks could carry, they offered the advantages of shorter travelling times and less stress for the animals. The low carrying capacity of early trucks prevented mature cattle being carried until larger lorries were introduced in the 1950s and 1960s.

Transporting bobby calves

Bobby calves (bull calves or surplus heifer calves from dairy farms, only about three or four days old) are the youngest class of animal to be regularly transported in New Zealand. They are collected from the farm gate in spring and trucked to the nearest freezing works for slaughter.

New models

Technical advances over the years have increased the size, horsepower, speed and carrying capacities of trucks. The 1960s saw the introduction of articulated truck-and-trailer units, which could carry more animals. From the 1970s, big rigs could transport around 600 prime lambs, 400 ewes, or 40 cattle. Stock crates had three levels for sheep, but could be converted to double-deck cattle crates. The crates are removable, enabling trucking firms to carry other freight outside of the stock season, making their businesses more financially viable.

As stock trucks got bigger and carried more animals, the problem of effluent became worse. Travelling in a car behind a fully loaded stock truck can be very messy. In 1997 a National Stock Effluent Working Group was formed to develop solutions to the problem, and in 2003 it introduced an industry code that farmers and trucking companies had to adopt.

In the 2000s the trucks continued to get larger and carrying capacities continued to grow, with a truck-and-trailer unit able to carry 440 adult sheep or 700 lambs, 45 prime cattle beasts or 100 weaners. These huge units often travel the length of the country.

  1. Bruce Foster and Vernon Wright, Stockman country: a New Zealand mustering adventure. Wellington: Listener, 1983, p. 35. › Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Ruth Low, 'Transport of animals', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 27 September 2021)

Story by Ruth Low, published 24 Nov 2008