The increase in sheep numbers between 1851 and the 1920s was based largely on the natural, unimproved fertility of the country’s soils. In the South Island this phase lasted until the early 1890s, by which time the North Island bush was being turned into pasture. As soil fertility started to decline, the growth in sheep numbers slowed, but the application of science to agriculture helped counter this trend from the 1920s to 1950. The introduction of aerial topdressing in 1949, relatively cheap superphosphate, and high prices for meat and wool generated the rapid rise in sheep numbers through the 1950s and 1960s. Government subsidies helped maintain that growth through the 1970s. The removal of subsidies and the restructuring of the agricultural industry led to a steep decline in sheep numbers in the last two decades of the 20th century. Sheep numbers have continued to fall – they were around 40 million in 2002 and by 2014 were estimated at 29.6 million.
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Sources: G. T. Bloomfield, New Zealand: a handbook of historical statistics. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984, and Statistics New Zealand