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sheep farming in New Zealand

Shift in New Zealand: Rising Popularity of Pine Forests Leads to Decline in Sheep Farming

Sheep numbers in sharp decline as farmers increasingly shift to forestry, fuelled by demand to earn carbon credits

Along the ridgelines of High Peak station, a procession of sheep can be seen making their way, initially in a leisurely manner before transforming into a surge of movement. Like an eddy, they navigate around Hamish Guild, their dirty white wool forming an avalanche heading towards the valley. Guild’s gaze shifts across the landscape, settling on a grassy slope that separates in two. On one side, a velvety black expanse of pine forest blankets the hill, creating a striking contrast against the surrounding scenery.

Guild, a second-generation sheep farmer whose family has been rooted in this land outside Christchurch since the 1970s, expresses their family’s determination to persevere. “We’ve reached a collective decision to hold on for as long as possible,” Guild affirms, reflecting their commitment to continue the legacy of sheep farming despite the prevailing changes in the agricultural landscape.

With a hint of humor, Guild contemplates the future, envisioning the possibility of their farm becoming a unique and captivating oasis amidst the surrounding sea of forestry.

“Perhaps we’ll transform into a sort of museum,” Guild muses, chuckling. “A testament to how farming was once practiced in New Zealand during the 2020s.”

New Zealand’s iconic image is shaped by vast high country sheep stations, adorned with golden tussock. For nearly a century, sheep farming, along with lamb, mutton, and wool production, served as New Zealand’s primary source of agricultural and national income. During its peak in the 1980s, the number of sheep outnumbered humans by a ratio of more than 20 to one.

Sheep Farming in New Zealand

Currently, the sheep industry in the country is experiencing a significant decline

Farm after farm is making a transition to profitable pine forestry, driven by the demand for carbon credits. In accordance with New Zealand’s emissions trading scheme, landowners have the opportunity to earn credits, which can be traded or sold, by engaging in activities that absorb carbon dioxide. The conversion of farmland into forestry has resulted in prices several times higher than its previous value as agricultural land. Across vast expanses of land, wire fences are being removed, and fields are now adorned with dense clusters of young pine trees. The total sheep population in New Zealand has plummeted from over 70 million in the 1980s to a mere 26 million today. This year marks the first time since records began that the ratio of sheep to people has dropped below 5:1.

Simultaneously, the global wool price has sharply declined, to the extent that the expense of shearing a sheep exceeds the value of its fleece. Additionally, farmers are encountering heightened scrutiny regarding their environmental practices. However, the prominent factor influencing these circumstances over the past decade has been the surge of forestry, providing farmers with an avenue to alleviate economic and political pressures by capitalizing on their land assets.

Forestry holds a pivotal role in New Zealand’s government strategy for reducing emissions, particularly since agricultural emissions present the most challenging hurdle. Approximately half of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions stem from agriculture, primarily due to methane emissions from livestock. Presently, tree-planting serves as a central component in New Zealand’s roadmap towards achieving net zero emissions. Associate Professor David Evison from the New Zealand School of Forestry at the University of Canterbury highlighted the necessity for a substantial tree planting initiative, emphasizing that the country will not be able to reach its net zero goal by 2050 with existing technologies alone. According to his estimates, New Zealand may require an additional 1.7 million hectares of newly planted forests to meet its 2050 target of net zero emissions.

Sheep Farming in New Zealand

However, this approach is facing growing criticism. In April, the climate commission expressed concern about New Zealand’s heavy reliance on forestry, arguing that relying solely on tree planting to achieve net emissions reduction would not be sustainable in the long run. The aftermath of cyclone Gabrielle, which caused significant damage due to forestry debris, triggered a substantial public backlash. As a result, in June, the government announced a reevaluation of the role of pine forests within the emissions trading scheme.

Observing the transformation of farms in his region into pine plantations, William Morrison, a sixth-generation sheep farmer from Rangitikei in central North Island, reveals mixed emotions. He states:

“There’s a conflict of emotions. I’ve always had a deep affection for working on the farm, and with our family’s long-standing connection to the land, there’s a sense of pride and passion for farming.”

The advent of pine plantations presents a promising economic opportunity for numerous farmers

However, it carries significant social and cultural implications, leading to the erosion of rural communities. While there may be a surge of employment during the initial planting phase, carbon forests demand minimal ongoing staff. As farming families dwindle, rural schools, villages, and businesses face declining populations. This cascade effect can have far-reaching consequences. Essential services that support small towns begin to shut down, and as farmers find themselves increasingly isolated amidst the expanding forest, they too contemplate the possibility of relocating.

A study conducted in 2022, commissioned by Beef and Lamb, revealed that approximately 175,000 hectares of sheep and beef farms were sold with the intention of converting them into forestry since 2017. Furthermore, the rate of such conversions was rapidly accelerating. In 2021 alone, forestry interests purchased over 52,000 hectares, a substantial increase compared to the 7,000 hectares in 2017. Notably, forty percent of the acquired land was being bought by foreign investors who sought to incorporate carbon forests into their portfolios.

Sheep Farming in New Zealand

While carbon-absorbing forests offer environmental advantages, environmentalists express reservations regarding the expansion of monocultures consisting of radiata pine. This introduced species, known for its rapid growth, poses a threat to native ecosystems and can result in devastating consequences when harvested, leading to cascading effects downstream. As New Zealand grapples with the dilemma of balancing its climate responsibilities with its agricultural economy, the issue of pine forestry occupies a complex and contentious position at the heart of the challenge.

“Pine trees play a crucial role in our economy and contribute significantly to our efforts in combating climate change,” explains Erica van Reenen, who is married to Morrison and operates an environmental consultancy.

However, the aftermath of forestry clearing can also have severe environmental consequences. Once land is planted with pine, it becomes incredibly challenging to revert it back to its original state. Van Reenen describes the aftermath as a scarred landscape with debris piles and exposed bare soil, which is particularly disheartening for those who understand the importance of preserving topsoil.

“As the landscape transforms, some farmers develop a strong aversion towards pine, creating a sense of animosity,” van Reenen adds.

Sheep Farming in New Zealand

High Peak station reveals a captivating sight as clusters of sheep gracefully gather, forming a gentle whirlpool-like motion. A veil of mist hovers above the lower regions of the station, slowly dissipating with the warmth of the morning sun. The mist gracefully recedes, revealing a picturesque landscape adorned with stretches of pasture, tussock, and bracken that extend towards the majestic ski slopes of Mount Hutt.

Guild emphasizes that from a purely economic perspective, it might be most profitable to convert all the land into forestry. However, he warns that such a decision would have a devastating impact on the local community. The disappearance of farms employing young families would be catastrophic for the heart of the community. Guild acknowledges the need for change but expresses a firm determination to resist the widespread expansion of forestry. It is a delicate balance between acknowledging the need for adaptation and preserving the essence of the community.