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N.Z.'s dwindling sheep population no joke.

SYDNEY, Feb. 21 Kyodo

The old joke about New Zealand's sheep outnumbering its people by 20-1 was dispelled Friday by national statistics agency figures showing the country has only 10 sheep per person.

In its first agricultural census since 1994, Statistics New Zealand found sheep numbers in the country have shrunk by 21% from 49.5 to 39.2 million. New Zealand's population is 3.9 million.

''There has been a steady decline in sheep numbers since 1982, when the national flock peaked at 70.3 million sheep,'' the government agency said in a statement.

While jokes about New Zealand's sheep population are often made by its neighbor across the Tasman Sea, Australia's own sheep population is almost three times bigger.

With 115 million sheep and a population of 19 million, Australians are close behind New Zealanders with six sheep per person.

New Zealand's Agricultural Production Census 2002 also found that beef cattle numbers were down 11% from 5.0 to 4.5 million, but dairy cattle numbers increased by 39% from 3.8 to 5.3 million.

''It's relative economics,'' said Rod Forbes, a senior analyst at the Agriculture and Forestry Ministry told Kyodo News, explaining how dairy cattle offer a better return on the land.

''Forestry areas have been expanding primarily over sheep country, which is hilly land,'' he said, citing strong growth in nonresident forestry syndicates making the most of tax incentives.

Dairy cattle, however, are raised on flat land that is the country's best, he said. ''We are expecting dairy will continue to expand.''

The area planted in wine grapes grew by 37% from 12,700 hectares to 17,400 hectares, meaning that more land is now being utilized for growing wine grapes than for any other type of fruit.

Kiwifruit accounted for 12,200 hectares and apples covered 11,600 hectares, while avocado planting has more than doubled to 3,100 hectares since 1994.

Wine grapes have been New Zealand's main horticulture growth area for some years, Forbes said. ''At one stage we saw 1,000 hectares a year of grapes being planted.''

Dedicated wine makers are buying land in areas such as Marlborough, at the top of South Island, which is suitable for neither sheep nor cattle, he said.

There has been a large increase in New Zealand's wine exports.

''We think in about four years time wine sales will exceed apple sales, and in six years it will be knocking kiwifruit. Exports are going up but so is the price. They continue to defy gravity.''
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Publication:Asian Economic News
Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:Feb 24, 2003
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