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Sheep jokes aside, Kiwis lose their friends

Published: 12:20AM Thursday March 05, 2009 Source: AAP

Bad gags about Kiwis and their four-legged friends might still be rife but the sheep themselves are disappearing fast.

Sheep have long fought it out with the All Blacks for the title of New Zealand's signature export.

Much of this is down to the healthy Kiwi predilection for all things lamb, mutton and wool, and a statistic from 1982 showing there were 70.3 million of the cud-chewing mammals, outstripping the the country's human population by 22 to one.

But over the past 25 years, sheep have been slowly disappearing from paddocks as everything from dry weather to government subsidy changes and tough economic conditions put the boot into farmers.

A few years ago the national flock stood at 40 million, but it has dropped further since to just 34.2 million, less than half the 1980s high and the lowest seen in almost 60 years.

That leaves just seven sheep for each New Zealander, not far off the four-to-one ratio seen in Australia, where numbers have also been dropping fast.

And while the Kiwis can still claim the international title for the most sheep per capita, there is no doubt the icon that put them on the world map has taken a battering on home soil.

It's not that the icon itself has been damaged. Sheep still form a solid part of the culture, as seen when the agriculture minister recently declared February 15 National Lamb Day in recognition of the creature's contribution to its country.

New Zealand still tops the world shearing championships for fastest fleece removal and sheep jokes, much to most New Zealanders' distaste, still abound.

At least three websites are dedicated to them, and Wikipedia devotes a section to so-called "ewe-phemisms" under trans-Tasman rivalries, stating: "A commonly used insult that Australians use is the term 'sheep-shagger'."

When the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly took to the stage in Auckland this month he couldn't resist trying one on a Kiwi audience.

"There's nothing wrong with sheep, as long as you can get a suspender belt to fit...," he joked.

And when a counterfeiter made crude forgeries of New Zealand bank notes last year it was fitting they chose to replace the Queen's portrait with a sheep wearing the royal tiara.

While there's no cultural threat to sheep, the industry itself has been struggling to survive without government subsidies that were axed in 1984.

"Basically there has been little or no money in it for 20 years," says Keith Woodford, professor of agribusiness at Lincoln University and New Zealand's top sheep industry expert.

The wool market has been the most dire, with sheep farmers who were once able to get up to 40% of their income from shearing now lucky to break even after paying cutting costs.

"It might be expensive to buy in the shops but, to farmers, wool is almost valueless," says Woodford, who estimates a farmer would get just $NZ12 for the wool off one sheep.

"After he pays the direct costs, he has enough left from each sheep for a couple of cappuccinos, and we're talking homemade cappuccinos."

Until this year, the market for lamb wasn't doing much better.

It is worth about $NZ2.2 billion a year to the country and is the single largest export after dairy products. But farmers have only been getting about $NZ55 a head for each lamb they raise, leaving them with a few coins in their pocket after expenses.

With profits low and drought making times tougher, hundreds of farmers opted out of the industry, selling their sheep for slaughter and replacing them with more profitable dairy cows and, in some areas, grapes and urban developments.

"We've got far fewer places to put sheep these days," says Rob Davison from Meat and Wool New Zealand, who estimates about 350 farms were converted to dairy last year alone.

"That simple fact is having an impact on our numbers."

This tighter sheep supply is responsible, ironically, for the higher $NZ80 price tag for each lamb this season, helping farmers keep their heads above water.

"And there's obviously a more competitive interest rate for exporters, which is helping too," Davison says.

He predicts lamb, while the most expensive mainstream meat on the export market, won't suffer too much in the worldwide recession, with families buying quality products for home-cooked meals in exchange for eating out.

These changes in fortune have injected more confidence into the industry but, says Woodford, the industry is still precariously placed.

"Farmers are smiling for now but that's not to say it won't change in a flash," he warns.

"If the good news keeps up, we can hope sheep numbers will stop dropping and finally start stabilising.

"But those grand old days of 70-plus million sheep are certainly a thing of the past."

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