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Counting Sheep

Posted on 6/7/2016 12:32:00 PM in Travel Trivia

For a country with no native land mammals (save for a couple species of bats), New Zealand has an impressive number of sheep.

Question: What country has a larger population of sheep than people?

Answer: New Zealand

Counting sheep can help with a restless night’s sleep, but what if there are millions of them? In New Zealand, sheep outnumber humans roughly six to one, with approximately 29.5 million sheep and just 4.4 million people. And that’s nothing compared to the largest sheep boom the country ever experienced in 1982, hitting a peak of 70 million sheep and 3.2 million people—that’s about 20 sheep for every one person.

Sheep farming was the most important agricultural industry in New Zealand for 130 years, but it was overtaken by dairy farming in 1987. Still, to this day, the country is the largest exporter of lambs in the world, and home to 16,000 sheep farms.

So how did this island nation end up with so many? Sheep were introduced to the country between 1773 and 1777 by British explorer James Cook—the first person to circumnavigate New Zealand. Then, in 1843, pioneer farmer John Deans purchased a substantial number of sheep from Australia and transported them to Canterbury, New Zealand. The colonization of the country began around the same time, setting the stage for sheep farming’s major growth.

Although sheep tend to dominate on these islands, they’re not the only creatures that make New Zealand stand out:

  • Bold birdie: The kea, a native parrot of New Zealand, is known for its wit and curiosity. Pestering humans is the kea’s favorite pastime, most notably stealing items from tourists and eating the rubber off of car windows. (Is that covered by rental car insurance?)
  • Creature on the brink: The Maui dolphin is the world’s smallest and rarest species of dolphin, and can only be found off the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. With less than 55 dolphins remaining, these creatures are sadly on the edge of extinction.
  • Populous penguins: There are more species of penguin found in New Zealand than any other country, and it is also home to the world’s smallest—the little blue penguin.
  • Don’t Google this: New Zealand is home to the world’s largest insect—the giant weta. This creepy crawler is roughly the size of a mouse, and can often be found munching on its favorite snack: carrots.
  • Jumbo eggs: The flightless kiwi, New Zealand’s national bird and the namesake of its people, lays an egg that can weigh up to 20% of its body mass, which is proportionally the largest of any bird in the world.
  • Sneaky snail: The Powelliphanta is a giant land snail found only in New Zealand. For native worms and slugs, it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, so to speak: It’s one of the world’s few carnivorous species, and regularly dines on smaller slimy morsels.
  • Going batty: Because of its physical isolation from other regions of the world, New Zealand’s only native land mammals are two species of bat—all others were introduced to the country by humans. Dubbed “pekapeka” by the indigenous Maori people, both bat species—the long-tail and short-tail—have a body around the size of your thumb and a wingspan of only 30 centimeters.
  • Snake charmers: Lest you balk at the prospect of encountering the weta or pekapeka, take comfort in the fact that New Zealand has no land snakes whatsoever—and government officials intend to keep it that way. The myriad animal species introduced to New Zealand have wrought havoc on indigenous wildlife, resulting in the extinction of 1/3 of the nation’s birds, nearly half of its frogs, and a dozen plants. Therefore, if a snake ends up on land, specialists are sent to survey the threat to any other wildlife, in hopes of preserving as many of its remaining native species as possible.

Related Article:

Land of the Long White Cloud
In addition its natural beauty, New Zealand is a land of rich cultural traditions. Discover the heritage of the Maori people, from their folklore and storytelling to the challenges they face today.
Read story »

Explore the natural beauty and wildlife of New Zealand—including its sheep—with O.A.T. during Pure New Zealand.

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