James Little was born on 22 October 1834 into a farming family at Powbeat, Midlothian, Scotland. He was the son of Margaret Tait and her husband, Henry Little, a shepherd descended from early Presbyterian Covenanters who had lost their ancestral lands in Meikledale. James was educated at Peeblesshire and spent much of his youth minding sheep on unfenced land. On 5 June 1863, at Lamington, Lanarkshire, he married Mary Telfer; they were to have seven children. About 1865 they embarked on the Canterbury with their infant daughter, Janet, to bring a consignment of Romney Marsh sheep to New Zealand. The ship began taking water during a storm in the Bay of Biscay and the crew considered jettisoning the valuable sheep, but Little saw them safely delivered to New Zealand.
Dr George Webster, of Corriedale and Balruddery stations in Otago, had ordered the Romneys, and he now employed Little as shepherd and then manager. The longwool Romneys were not suited to the native tussock pasture, and Little asked Webster's consent to cross them with the predominant Australian merinos. The progeny would be inbred to produce a more versatile type, an experiment which Little had seen carried out successfully in Britain. Since Little's sheep were already commanding high prices and winning prizes in the show-ring, Webster agreed, in spite of ridicule from neighbours. Six hundred ewes were earmarked for the experiments, the success of which ultimately made the resulting Corriedale breed world famous.
After Webster's death in 1878, Little leased the 5,500-acre property, Allandale, in North Canterbury, near Hawarden. He stocked it with Lincoln rams from Balruddery and the best merino ewes available, and renewed his experiments. This Lincoln–merino inbred cross was the basis of a new Corriedale breed which was more suited to the eastern grasslands of the South Island than either merinos or longwools. Here was a dual-purpose sheep, with wool nearly as fine as merino, but a meat carcass far superior. He modestly remarked of his achievement that it only required time, care and perseverance to get a breed which, for both wool and meat, was the equal of any in the world.
In 1882 the first New Zealand shipment of frozen meat was exported from Otago, and Canterbury soon followed suit. Previously cull sheep had been either canned or boiled down for tallow. Now the refrigeration industry opened up huge new markets overseas for surplus meat. Little's Corriedales were ideal for this new opportunity and several stock firms competed for them. They were slaughtered at both Belfast and Islington freezing works and the carcasses sold at Addington for the home market.
James Little's highly adaptable stud rams were sold throughout New Zealand and exported to South America, Australia, South Africa and East Africa. He won prizes and cups at Agricultural and Pastoral Association shows throughout New Zealand for his Corriedales and also for English Leicester sheep, Ayrshire cattle and shire draught horses. He won a gold medal in France, and in 1915 gold and bronze medals at the Panama Pacific Exhibition, prompting a letter of congratulation from the Department of Agriculture, Wellington. Little himself became a show judge.
In time Little became a wealthy landowner in North Canterbury. He bought a property adjoining Allandale, naming it Dalmeny after the home of Lord Rosebery. Here he built a home. Gradually he acquired neighbouring farms as they came on the market. He established his only son, Henry, at Hui Hui nearby and leased some of the farms to family members who had migrated from Scotland. Henry ably assisted his father in further breeding developments.
James Little regularly worshipped and often preached at local Presbyterian services. He served on the Waipara Road Board and several local committees, and wrote booklets and letters to newspapers on farming matters. He was an efficient employer, sometimes having up to eight horse-teams working on growing crops for feed or harvest, and sowing English grasses to replace native tussock. He seldom had cause to remark in his diary that the men were 'not able to do anything.'
James Little died at his home, Strathblane, in Christchurch on 31 October 1921. He was survived by his son Henry and five daughters, Mary Little having died in 1906.