Sheep numbers continue downward trend, falling 800,000 in 2020

There are 26 million sheep in New Zealand.
There are 26 million sheep in New Zealand. Photo credit: Getty

Dry conditions last year caused sheep numbers in the country to fall by almost a million, according to the latest data from Stats NZ.

The figures show in the year ended June 2020, there were 26 million sheep in total in New Zealand. That was down 800,000 from the previous year and compares to a peak of 70 million sheep in 1982.

Stats NZ agricultural production statistics manager Ana Krpo says drought in many parts of the country last year caused feed shortages that contributed to the drop in number. 

Hawke's Bay, which experienced its worst drought in decades, saw the biggest decrease, with sheep numbers falling 12 percent - 346,000 - from the previous year to a total of 2.5 million, as of June 2020.

"While the fall in sheep numbers during this period is related to the 2020 drought, there has been a general decline for almost 40 years," Krpo said.

"There are now five sheep per person - a drop from the 1982 historic high of 22 per person."

Krpo said sheep numbers have plummeted by 20 percent - 6.5 million - in the past 10 years alone.

"A strong contributing factor to the five-sheep-per-person metric was the increase in New Zealand’s population, from 3.2 million in 1982 to 5.1 million in 2020."

The total value of sheep-meat exports for the year ended June 2020 was $4 billion, according to Stats NZ.

And while meat exports remain strong, the export value of wool has fallen considerably in recent years. The export value of wool was $460 million last year, compared to $880 million in 2012. 

The country's dairy-milking herd is also in decline, falling 7 percent - 400,000 - from its peak in 2016 to 4.8 million.

"Despite a smaller dairy herd, the export volume has remained relatively steady in the past five years. The annual value of dairy product exports increased to almost $16 billion in 2014 when international prices were high, before falling back to almost $11 billion in 2016, and returning to $16.6 billion for the year ended June 2020," Krpo said.

China remains the main export market for New Zealand dairy products.

The number of beef cattle has steadied in recent years after dropping consistently between 2006 and 2016, Krpo said.

"Since then, good beef prices provided buoyancy to the industry and, between June 2016 and 2020, the total number of beef cattle increased by 10 percent (350,000) to 3.9 million."

Total beef exports rose from $3.3 billion in 2019 to $3.8 billion in the year ended June 2020.