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“Only 46 million”
– Sheep farming in New Zealand
During the early days of New Zealand’s European settlement, sheep were imported to provide meat and wool for clothing. The early pioneers lived “off the sheep’s back”. As farming developed, wool became one of New Zealand’s first export earners. After the introduction of refrigeration in 1886 mutton and lamb were also exported.
New Zealanders are proud of their sheep, now down to 46 million from 70 million in the 1980s. They still produce quality meat and wool for world markets. New Zealand lamb is the world’s best and is the benchmark for all our competitors. New Zealand strong wool (e.g. Romney) is in demand for knitting, clothing and carpets and superfine Merino produces the world’s highest quality suitings.
Sheep have worked hard in New Zealand. They were the machines used by early pioneers to break in land from scrub and bush. Sheep were used to tread grass and clover seed into the warm ash after burning and along the way provided their own fertiliser. Sheep continue to help New Zealand prosper, although today’s world markets prefer high quality lamb to wool.
“Dropping a stitch”
Sheep are usually run along with cattle on pastoral farms where their grazing patterns complement each other. Sheep graze the finer grasses, while cattle eat the longer, coarser pasture plants and weeds.
The average farm has about 1,500 ewes and 150 beef breeding cows run as a one-person unit, with no extra labour apart from shearing. Larger farms on hill country and high-country stations in the South Island carry from 8,000 to 20,000 breeding ewes.
Sheep also graze large areas of lowland pasture in association with mixed farming. A good example of this is on the Canterbury plains where they help build up fertility by grazing pastures before cropping.
When it comes to wool, it is claimed that in the 1960s New Zealanders were the largest users per head in the world, although this only accounted for about 3 per cent of the annual production of 1.25 million bales.
There is little doubt that much of this wool was used by the now departing craft of knitting. Knitting was once an activity of hugh popularity, that was passed on from mother to daughter; women sat on trams and buses able to simultaneously chat and knit without dropping a stitch. At home, if hands were ever idle, knitting took over and the basket with all the necessary equipment was always at hand. Perhaps it was parked behind the sofa to be picked up during evening relaxation to the accompaniment of the wireless or radiogram. And in addition to the knitting itself, there was also the darning to be done, the constant maintenance of the family’s clothes.