Grapes push New Zealand's sheep off the land

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The Independent Online

New Zealand, where people were once outnumbered 23 to one by woolly creatures, discovered yesterday that its sheep population has plummeted to a record low.

Hold the sheep jokes. New Zealand, where people were once outnumbered 23 to one by woolly creatures, discovered yesterday that its sheep population has plummeted to a record low.

The national flock has fallen from 70 million sheep in 1982 to fewer than 40 million, according to the first agricultural census for a decade. That means only 10 sheep per person in a country where the human total nudges 4 million.

The reason for shrinking stocks is neither a surge in vegetarianism nor endless ribbing by the outside world about New Zealand's love affair with the sheep. Houses, cows and grapes have combined to push sheep off the land, crowding out pastures that were traditionally home to the country's vast flocks.

With farmers searching for new and more profitable ways of using their land, some sheep properties have been turned into dairy farms or small fruit farms. They are also being eaten up by plantation forests and urban sprawl.

But the grape is perhaps the sheep's keenest competitor for living space. With the rise of the grape as a cash crop, New Zealand has gained a worldwide reputation for producing high-quality white varieties. More land is now used for growing wine grapes than any other type of fruit, including New Zealand's emblematic kiwi fruit.

The good news, for sheep farmers, is that lamb meat is now being produced more efficiently, which means the value of lamb exports continues to rise.

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