An ark-load of animals
Before the arrival of people in New Zealand, the only native mammals were three species of bat and eight species of seal and sea lion. Polynesians brought kiore (Pacific rats) and kurī (Polynesian dogs). European settlers introduced a huge variety of animals, including:
- sheep and cattle for farming
- horses and dogs for work and sport
- possums for fur
- deer, chamois, tahr and rabbits for hunting
- stoats and ferrets for pest control
- hedgehogs, to remind settlers of England.
Other animals were introduced mainly for their curiosity value, including zebras (released on Kawau Island in 1870 by George Grey), long-nosed potoroos, marsupial cats, bandicoots, seven species of wallaby, raccoons, mongooses, squirrels, chipmunks, gnus, and bharals (blue sheep). Fortunately, many of these did not establish feral populations, as they would probably have become pests.
Michael Studholme of Te Waimate Station released three wallabies – two females and one male – about 1874. They have since spread across the South Canterbury foothills from Burkes Pass to the Waitaki River. For many years, wallabies have been shot to control their numbers. Recently, an enterprising businessman from Waimate has begun making wallaby pies.
Hedgehogs are major predators of the bugs, slugs and snails that feed on crops, vegetables and pasture. One of their favourite foods is the adult grass grub, which causes millions of dollars worth of damage to pastures every year. However, hedgehogs also can spread diseases that affect livestock and humans.
Hedgehogs have been recorded travelling more than 2.2 kilometres on their overnight excursions. They are excellent swimmers and swim through swampland and open water. They can also climb trees – and some claim they knock fruit to the ground so they can eat it later.
The Canterbury and Otago acclimatisation societies attempted to establish hedgehogs in the 1870s and 1880s, but they were unsuccessful until 1894, when 12 escaped from a Christchurch enclosure. The North Island was apparently free of the animals into the early 1900s. By then, hedgehogs had come to be regarded as natural predators of garden pests, which led to a deliberate spread of the Canterbury stock to other parts of the country.
Animals for farming
Sheep and cattle have been the most important farm animals in New Zealand since European settlement. Pigs and goats have been farmed from the earliest days, and deer have been domesticated since the 1970s. Wool, meat, dairy products, leather and fibre are produced from these animals.
Innovative farmers and researchers have investigated farming other exotic species for a wider range of products, particularly for markets in the Americas and Asia. Often this was in response to falling prices for wool and sheep meat, and the decline in profitability of traditional livestock farming after government farming subsidies were withdrawn in the 1980s.
Animals for fur and pelts
There were some attempts at farming ferrets, rabbits and brushtailed possums in the late 20th century, but only on a small scale. The popular mixture of wool and possum fibres relies on fur from trapped or poisoned wild possums. To investigate the viability of farming chinchillas for their pelts, 30–40 were imported in 1985. However, this has not developed into a commercial enterprise.
In the mid-1980s several companies imported angora goats from Africa and the southern US. Investors fuelled an unrealistic boom and angora bucks sold for peak prices of more than $100,000 each. In 1988 the number of goats farmed in New Zealand reached 1.3 million. Soon after the share market crash of 1987, the angora goat boom also crashed as investors left the industry. The number of farmed goats declined.
By 2007, when about 800 farmers ran goats, mohair was bringing about $17 per kilogram, with top prices up to $30. Wool was selling for only $2 per kilogram.