New Zealand sheep numbers continue to drop

There are currently five sheep for every person in New Zealand.
There are currently five sheep for every person in New Zealand. Photo credit: Getty

New Zealand may be world famous for its sheep - but it may be time to update our national stereotype.

As of June 2020, the country's sheep flock had dropped 700,000 from the previous year, to a total of 26.2 million, according to Stats NZ figures released on Friday.

The 2 percent drop was attributed in part to dry summer conditions in the North Island over the past year.

"The number of sheep has been falling since 2012. While there have been increases in the total number of sheep in some years, total sheep has been falling more generally since 1982," said agricultural production statistics manager Ana Krpo.

The country's sheep population peaked in 1982, when there were 22 sheep for every person. Now, there are only five sheep per person.

Despite the drop in numbers, the value of sheep meat exports for the year ending June 2020 was up from the previous year, increasing from $3.8 billion to almost $4 billion. Lamb prices per head rose in 2017 with annual average levels higher than earlier in the decade, Krpo said.

Dairy cattle in the country are also decreasing in number.

After peaking at 6.7 million in 2014 their numbers have fallen by more than a half a million, to 6.1 million in 2020, Krpo said.

"The annual value of dairy product exports shot up to almost $16 billion in 2014 when international prices were high, before falling back to about $12 billion in the following few years, returning to more than $16 billion in 2020," she said

"However dairy export volumes remained relatively steady in the past five years, despite a smaller dairy herd."

The country's milking herd - the number of dairy cattle in milk or calf - was 4.7 million as of June, down by 3 percent on the previous year.

It's not all downhill though. The number of beef cattle increased for the fourth year in a row, with provisional figures from the agricultural production survey showing beef cattle numbers had increased 2 percent, to 4 million, in June 2020.

"Beef prices have generally remained strong and supported the increase in beef cattle numbers since 2016," Krpo said

"There are now a lot more steers than there were a few years ago and the beef breeding herd (beef cows and heifers in calf) has increased significantly."

There were 1.2 million steers - neutered male cattle raised for beef - as of June 2020, an increase of 180,000 or 18 percent since 2016, Krpo said. In the same period the beef breeding herd increased by 111,000, or 12 percent.

Total beef exports were also up for the year ending June, rising from $3.3 billion last year to around $3.8 billion.

"Compared with 2016, when the beef cattle herd started to increase, annual beef exports have grown by $700 million.

"Steer and heifer prices per kilogram took a leg up in 2015 and remain above levels seen earlier in the decade," Krpo said.