Sheep farming has been crucial in the development of New Zealand’s economy. The export returns from fine wool grown on the open grasslands of the South Island provided the impetus for economic growth until the 1880s. Initially the trade was dominated by South Island farmers. However, as land in the North Island was transferred from Māori to European settlers and the bush was cleared, the whole country began to share in the new prosperity from the start of the 20th century. From 1856 to 1987, sheep farming was the most important agricultural industry in New Zealand – in fact, wool was the country’s single most valuable export for 89 of the 112 years between 1856 and 1967. The combined income from wool and sheep meat dominated New Zealand’s agricultural earnings from the mid-1880s until the late 1980s.
Since then, dairying has overtaken sheep farming. From 1992, returns from the dairy industry have surpassed those of sheep production. Sheep numbers peaked at 70.3 million in 1982, but have fallen since to around 39 million in the early 2000s. However, New Zealand remains the world’s largest exporter of sheep meat and cross-bred (strong) wool. The Drysdale breed of sheep originated in New Zealand and is raised primarily for wool. Dr. Francis Dry in 1931 noticed a genetic freak, a Romney ram with a high percentage of very coarse wool. Crossing two Romney and Cheviots resulted in a sheep with a lot of coarse, long-staple wool that had to be shorn twice a year. Demand from carpet manufacturers in the early 1960s caused an increase in the number of Drysdales in the New Zealand flock. Drysdale wool carpets are used in computing environments where static electricity is a problem.
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