It’s widely believed that New Zealand has 20 sheep for every person – information that adds weight to myriad sheep jokes. How accurate is this these days?
To begin with, we must find out how many people live in New Zealand. The population passed the 4 million mark in 2003. Our population clock put the event at precisely 5.30 pm on Thursday, 24 April. By 31 December 2011, the estimated resident population had reached 4.42 million people.
Next, we must find out how many sheep we have. According to Statistics New Zealand's agricultural production statistics, we had an estimated 31.1 million sheep at 30 June 2011.
This means that the sheep-to-person ratio has fallen to a third of its level 25 years ago. It now stands at a little over seven sheep per person.
This myth is busted. The information is now out of date.
However, it is still true that people in New Zealand are greatly outnumbered by sheep, and our sheep-to-person ratio is high relative to other countries. It’s twice as high as Australia's, for example, which currently has less than five sheep per person. As with New Zealand, this is due to declining sheep numbers and a growing human population. The number of sheep in Australia fell 40.7 million between 1994 and 2006, while the human population grew 2.7 million.
New Zealanders have also long been outnumbered by cattle, although not to the same extent as by sheep. There are currently 6.2 million dairy and 3.9 million beef cattle in New Zealand. While the cattle population is growing at a slower rate than the human population, there has been a notable shift in the make-up of the cattle population. In 1994, 43.2 percent of cattle were dairy cattle. By 2011, that proportion had increased to 61.40 percent.
A bit of sheep history
New Zealand sheep numbers peaked in 1982, with a total of 70.3 million sheep. In the same year, 3.18 million people lived in New Zealand. This works out to 22 sheep per person.
Sheep numbers have gradually declined since the mid-1980s, due to factors such as depressed wool prices, droughts in the 1990s, and competition from other land-intensive farming activities (eg dairy and forestry). While sheep numbers stabilised and even grew slightly in the mid-2000s, numbers soon decreased again, reaching the low of 31.1 million in 2011.
Some sheep facts from An Encyclopedia of New Zealand for the historians among us:
- New Zealand's first sheep were set ashore by Captain Cook in 1773.
- Rapid sheep population growth in the 1850s and 1860s was due mostly to permanent immigration, rather than natural increase. In 1864 alone, 13,000 sheep arrived in Canterbury from Australia. Droughts meant that sheep could always be bought cheaply from Australia. Drought continues to affect Australian farmers and sheep numbers.
- The first shipment of frozen lamb and mutton sailed to London from Port Chalmers on The Dunedin in 1882.
For your information
Agricultural statistics – information releases
Information on farming in New Zealand – including livestock and arable farming, horticulture, and forestry. Statistics are produced in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. Updated annually.
National population estimates – information releases
National population estimates, including quarterly and annual changes in the resident population, and estimated population numbers for selected age groups. Updated quarterly.
Published 22 June 2012, based on information previously published on 7 May 2007.