Fun fact: New Zealand has seven times more sheep than people – almost 34 million sheep versus 4.8 million people. Little did Captain Cook realize that the few sheep he brought over in 1773 were not only the first sheep to set foot in the country (there were no endemic sheep) but they were to propagate so prodigiously to become the most important farming industry in New Zealand until 1987. Since then only dairy-farming has earned more money.
In homage to the number one money earner, let me take a moment to salute New Zealand’s cows. The main breed of dairy cow in New Zealand is the Holstein-Friesian:
New Zealand produces more than 100 types of dairy products, including whole milk, cream, butter, cheese, milk powder and buttermilk. In fact, the mozzarella used by the Pizza Hut restaurant chain comes, not from Italy, but from New Zealand.
There are also cattle farmed for their meat including Herefords which are often farmed alongside sheep and fed on grass.
We met a number of these surprisingly intelligent and expressive Herefords on our visit to the Mt. Nicholas Station and the Walter Peak High Country Farm.
The farm is nestled on the shores of Lake Wakatipu and surrounded by the Remarkables Mountains. I have never seen a “farm” with more spectacular settings, even though the cloud cover was pretty extensive during our visit:
But let’s get to the main attraction – the merino sheep – and their “master,” Belle.
St Nicholas Station raises some 30,000 merino sheep which is a type known for some of the finest and softest wool – rivaling even the luxuriousness of cashmere. They are a hardy and resilient breed and their thick wool protects them against cold and rain but also keeps them cool in the hot New Zealand summer. Although the sheep in the pics below appear to be grey, the wool is actually bright white just beneath the surface. And the lanolin in the wool is so powerful, most sheep-shearers have skin so soft to rival any high-end hand model. Each individual Merino ewe yields about 14 -18 pounds of wool each year while the rams can produce up to 25 pounds of fleece.
The sheep are hand sheared and it is not easy – the sheep are large – ewes weigh between 100-200 pounds and the rams range in weight from 180 – 230 pounds. They are very docile and do seem to enjoy the experience:
This ewe seemed happy with her new “do:
With so many sheep ranging across the 100,000 acres of land at the Mt Nicholas Station, human herders alone would have an impossible time keeping track and driving the massive flock to the appropriate feeding grounds or shearing sheds.
From the above photo one might think that Belle is a happy-go-lucky, playful Border Collie. Au contrare – she is all business. With silent signals, Belle goes into herding mode:
And then she is off racing around the sheep to guide them in:
It was interesting to see that once her job for the day was done, Belle looked a bit dejected as she sat down near her kennel. She truly lives to work.
That’ll do, Belle!