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Thursday, 2 May, 2002, 10:09 GMT 11:09 UK
Counting New Zealand's lost sheep
New Zealand sheep shearing championships
Importance of sheep is everywhere in the rural economy

It is a toss-up between rugby and sheep for the title of New Zealand's signature export.

But it is not all green pastures for the sheep farming industry.

A severe drought and rising returns from dairy and forestry are enticing farmers to diversify into other land uses.

In the past two decades sheep numbers have fallen from 70 million in 1982 to around 40 million now.

The big question is whether sheep farming in New Zealand is going out of fashion.

Sheep census

Counting sheep might be an activity best left to insomniacs, but when they are a key part of the national economy it is a serious business.

Sheep in pens on New Zealand farm
Activity for insomniacs: counting sheep
The sheep industry is worth $2bn a year to New Zealand, so every animal counts.

Since the last livestock census in 1996 there has been much heated debate about how many sheep are actually in the fields.

Nick Nicholson, chairman of the Wool Exporters Association, thinks numbers have fallen far below the official estimates.

"Our economic service has had a very very good record at predicting it, but I think the last couple of years they have been well off track," he said.

"I think the drop has been much more significant and particularly in the last 12-18 months we have seen some big drought areas in New Zealand and farmers have had to drop capital stock."

Waiting to come in

Just how much numbers have dropped is the source of all the controversy. The wool exporters say there are only around 38 million sheep left in New Zealand. The statisticians are holding firm at 44 million.

Towering sculptures by the roadside
Sheep sculptures still dominate the roadside

So, where are the missing 6 million sheep?

Tony Brennan from the New Zealand Wool Board Economic Service is adamant they are still out there... somewhere.

"What we've got is we've got a situation with a very wet season. The sheep are very slow to get shorn because they're wet. The quality of the grass with lack of sunlight hasn't been up to standard. So the lambs aren't coming forward to the works and the whole season's been late. But we'll get there eventually."

All change

Now is a period of rapid change for the industry as farmers increasingly choose other land uses over the notoriously tough life of a sheep farmer.

Conventional wisdom has it that farmers in New Zealand grow grass for a living. They then just find the most suitable animals to eat it.

But the sheep is still king. With annual wool exports of US$330m, the importance of sheep is evident everywhere in the rural economy, from playground rides to towering sculptures by the roadside.

New Zealand will still be making its living off the sheep's back for quite some time to come.

See also:

20 Feb 02 | Business
01 Mar 02 | Health
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