Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Exotic farm animals

by  Jim Esson

Although sheep and cows make up the vast majority of farm animals, New Zealanders have tried farming many different species. Some of the most successful are goats, alpacas, llamas and ostriches.

Introducing animals

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.

Wallaby pies

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.

Athletic hedgehogs

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.

Alpacas and llamas


The craze for goat farming in the mid-1980s was surpassed by the effort that went into the introduction of camelids – alpacas (Lama pacos) and llamas (Lama glama) from Chile. Investors put considerable capital into getting environmental impact reports and negotiating import protocols. Government agencies required the animals to be quarantined both in Chile before export, and again in New Zealand after their arrival, to ensure they did not bring diseases into the country.

It was expensive to transport the animals to New Zealand. Aircraft and ships were chartered, and helicopters were needed to transfer the animals to the quarantine station.

Spitting alpacas

Llamas and alpacas were introduced into New Zealand in the 19th century. W. B. Rhodes acquired alpacas from the Wellington provincial government in 1869 and kept them at his Banks Peninsula farm. At shearing time, they were found to be ‘exceedingly troublesome’, especially their spitting, with which they displayed ‘considerable range and accuracy’. 1

End of imports

In 1986, after only a few shipments, a severe outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Chile suddenly and permanently stopped the importation of alpacas and llamas, as they were the only exporting country. Despite that, in the early 2000s there were more than 6,000 alpacas in New Zealand. The New Zealand Alpaca Association has members throughout the country.

Acclimatisation in New Zealand

Alpacas and llamas have adapted well to New Zealand conditions. Most are found on small hobby or lifestyle farms. They are relatively easy to keep – they are not susceptible to fly strike or footrot, and there is no need for crutching, docking or dipping.

Long in the tooth

While alpacas are much easier to care for than sheep, they do need their toenails trimmed from time to time, depending on how soft the ground is (hard, stony soil will cause more wear) and the amount of protein in their diet. Also, as alpacas age their teeth tend to grow longer, and some may have to have theirs trimmed. This process causes them no pain and it is usually done at shearing time.

Health problems

Alpacas and llamas need to be monitored for the health problems they are susceptible to. One of these is ryegrass staggers, caused by a toxin in some ryegrass species that affects the nervous system. If the problem is caught early, the animals will recover when removed from the pasture. However, the condition can become permanent with long-term exposure to the toxin.

Facial eczema is a major problem for llamas and alpacas. Caused by the spores of a fungus found in pasture, it leads to liver damage and causes the skin to be sensitive to light.

As they are opportunistic browsers, poisoning from eating toxic plants is a problem. Plants that can be fatal include nightshade, foxglove, hemlock, tutu, ragwort, mallow, buttercup and macrocarpa.

Young alpacas, known as cria, are prone to rickets if they do not get enough sunlight in their early months. This can be remedied with vitamin D injections.

Alpacas and llamas are very susceptible to tuberculosis, which is also a problem in cattle and deer.


Llamas and alpacas should be shorn every one to two years, and they produce 3–5 kilograms of fibre. They are shorn in late spring, either standing or lying down and restrained in a rope harness to keep them as still as possible. They are shorn with electric clippers or a normal sheep-shearing handpiece.


Alpaca and llama fleeces are soft, silky and very warm. Garments made from the fibre keep their shape and won’t pill. Alpaca fleece is softer than Merino wool and has higher tensile strength, resulting in more durable garments.

White fibre can be easily dyed, but natural colours are the most popular. In the high plains of Chile, alpacas produce a very fine fibre; whereas in the lusher pastures of New Zealand their fibre is coarser and less valuable. Llama fibre is generally slightly more coarse than alpaca fibre, and comes in a wide range of types and colours.

The fibre from a young alpaca’s first shearing is the finest and brings the highest price. Virtually all fibre is sold on the domestic craft market.

  1. R. C. Lamb, Birds, beasts and fishes: the first hundred years of the North Canterbury Acclimatisation Society. Christchurch: North Canterbury Acclimatisation Society, 1964, p. 104. › Back

Water buffaloes


Water buffaloes (Bubalis bubalis) were imported in the 1990s, with the view that they might be better adapted to wetter areas of New Zealand than cattle. There are two main types of water buffalo – the swamp buffalo and the river buffalo.

Swamp buffaloes are found in eastern Asia, from the Philippines to India. They are used as a draught animal and also for meat, but not for milk. A distinctive characteristic is their habit of wallowing in any water or mud that they can find.

River buffaloes are found from India to Egypt, and in some southern European countries. These have been developed as a dairy breed and butterfat from their milk is the major source of cooking oil in some Asian countries. Mozzarella cheese is often made from river buffalo milk.

Buffalo imports

Some buffaloes were imported for zoos, and surplus animals were farmed.

A large shipment of swamp buffaloes arrived in 1991, sourced from a tuberculosis-free feral population in Northern Australia. After quarantine, Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries researchers evaluated their potential in New Zealand agriculture.

In 2007 and 2008 a South Auckland company imported 65 river buffaloes from an Australian breeder, and began making cheeses with buffalo milk.

By 2008 there were still only very low numbers in New Zealand – mainly on the West Coast and in Nelson, with a few in Waikato and Auckland.

Advantages of water buffaloes

Water buffaloes can adapt to a wide range of climates, and have a productive life of up to 25 years. Their meat is low in fat and cholesterol, and they produce a high-quality hide. They are able to thrive on lower-quality feed than cattle. Water buffaloes seem resistant to ticks, probably due to wallowing. Despite their preference for living in swampy places, they are not subject to footrot and foot abscesses.

Waterless buffaloes

It is a commonly held view that water buffaloes only live near water, but this is not the case. While they love wallowing in a muddy pool or soaking in a slow-flowing river, they can live comfortably without doing so. However, they need plenty of water to drink and must have shade in hot climates.

Disadvantages of water buffaloes

Water buffaloes suffer in hot weather, and so must have access to shade. Being driven in the hot sun can lead to heat exhaustion and possibly death. They are less able to cope with very cold conditions than cattle, and are susceptible to a similar range of diseases.

In New Zealand, water buffaloes have been prone to malignant catarrh fever, a disease carried by sheep, and so cannot be run with sheep or on land where sheep have recently grazed.

Meat and milk production

The lean meat of water buffalo is tender and highly regarded, and has been sold in some restaurants.

Water buffalo growth rates are at least as good as cattle on poor feed, and they forage better in swampy conditions. However they cannot compete with the growth rates of cattle on good feed.

River buffalo cows produced 5–7 litres of milk per day. Their milk has twice the fat content, and a third more protein, than cows’ milk.

Ostriches and emus

Ostriches (Struthio camelus) were first farmed in New Zealand in the 1880s. Ostrich feathers were a popular fashion accessory for women around 1900, but when the fashion passed, ostrich farming petered out. However, it revived in the 1990s.

In 2007 there were 2,000–3,000 emus (Dromaius novaehollandiae) farmed in New Zealand.

Meat production

The renewed interest in farming ostriches and emus is because of their meat, and in 2008 there were eight slaughter plants. The meat is low in fat and cholesterol, and is mostly used in the hotel and restaurant trade.

Ostrich hens produce about 40 chicks in a breeding season and these are ready for slaughter at 10–14 months, with each bird producing about 30 kilograms of meat. Emus produce around 20 chicks, which take 12–14 months to be ready for slaughter, and average around 10–13 kilograms of meat.

Other products

Ostriches produce high-quality leather, feathers, and a small amount of oil. There is also a market for their eggs. Emus produce 5–7 litres of oil, which is used in cosmetic products.

Ostrich oil

Emu and ostrich oil is produced by rendering down the birds’ fat. The oil helps heal skin problems. Nefertiti, an ancient Egyptian queen, used cosmetics made from ostrich oil to keep her skin looking young.


Ostriches and emus eat grass and a variety of other vegetation, but are also fed pellets to add vitamins and minerals to their diet. Breeding birds can be kept in pairs or in larger groups with 10 males to 20 hens.

The ostrich breeding season runs from about August to March, during which a hen can lay one egg every second day. Often the eggs are removed to an incubator, as hens may sometimes attack their own chicks. In the incubator, eggs are kept at a temperature of 36°C for around 42 days, when they hatch. Newborn chicks weigh about 1 kilogram. After hatching, they are housed in a rearing shed for about 12 weeks and can put on up to half a kilogram each day. When fully grown, at one year old, they can weigh 100 kilograms.

Female emus start laying eggs when they are two to three years old and lay about 25–30 eggs during winter and early spring. Hatching takes about 56 days, and can take place in an incubator but is usually done by the male, who goes without food or drink during this whole period. He then rears the chicks over the next 18 months. The female goes off and mates with another one or two males, and so can have up to three nests each season.

Ostriches live from 30-70 years in captivity and emus up to 30 years.


By law, emus and ostriches must be fenced so that they cannot escape. Normally their boundary fences are similar to those for deer, and they need to be at least 2 metres high. The height of internal fences depends on the age of the birds. Higher fences should be used for breeding adults, but 1 metre is high enough for chicks.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Jim Esson, 'Exotic farm animals', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 27 September 2021)

Story by Jim Esson, published 24 Nov 2008