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.