Chart of the Month: Lambslide in sheep numbers
Recently released data from Stats NZ shows that the number of sheep per person in New Zealand had declined to below five in 2022, the lowest since the 1800s. However, the analysis was more sheepish about providing the ratio trend over time. With important ramifications for New Zealand, our Chart of the Month analysis shows that the sheep-to-person ratio has been falling since the 1980s, as the human population has risen but the sheep population has fallen.
Our analysis also shows that the sheep ratio is largest across the middle of the North Island and throughout the bottom end of the South Island.
Lower baa as sheep ratio falls
Much is talked about when it comes to New Zealand’s considerable number of sheep, at least relative to our population. But there’s often little in the way of graphics or charts to make the stark point. Even Stats NZ’s recent release about the fall in the sheep-to-person ratio failed to show the trend over time.
As our Chart of the Month shows, the fall in the sheep-to-person ratio is a sustained trend since the 1980s.
New Zealand’s sheep population increased massively as European settlers arrived in New Zealand, rising from 223,000 in 1851 to over 1.5m by 1861 – a 583% increase. By contrast, the human population rose just 27%, from 91,000 people to 115,000. The ratio in 1851 was 2.45 – the lowest on record – but jumped up to 13.19 in 1861.
The sheep-to-person ratio peaked at 31.22 in 1867, and remained above 20-per-person until 1921, when the ratio declined to 18.01 (it likely crossed the threshold to go below 20 in around 1916).
Between 1921 and the early 1980s, the ratio averaged around 19-per-person, including a few years when it increased to above 20 again. From the early 1980s, the sheep population started to decline even as the human population rose, coinciding with a strong trend of changing agricultural land use towards dairy farming. The ratio slipped below 10 sheep-per-person in 2003, and then recently to below 5 in 2022 (officially 4.95 by our calculations).
New Zealand does still have more sheep-per-person than Australia, with the West Island having around a 3-to-1 ratio in the late 2010s.
Where’s that bleating coming from?
The national ratio of just below 5 sheep-per-person in 2022 hides a wide spread of sheep numbers across New Zealand. In 2022, Clutha District had the highest sheep-to-person ratio of anywhere in New Zealand, with 82.5 sheep for every person in the District (a pretty h-ewe-ge number!). Twelve other areas had a ratio of above 50 sheep-per-person, mostly in the middle of the North Island or in the southern half of the South Island.
Unsurprisingly, the sheep-to-person ratios in New Zealand cities were among the lowest in the country, with Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch all having fewer than one sheep-per-person. The city with the highest ratio was Dunedin, owing to the more rural environs encompassed within the city’s boundaries.