Stock were first brought to New Zealand on sailing ships from Britain and Australia. These vessels were not large by today’s standards – some were just over 100 tons, the largest not much more than 500 tons.
Stock were transported in pens, erected on the deck and in the hold. Stock food also had to be carried, and animal waste was dumped in the sea. The seas were often rough, and the voyage from England sometimes took more than 100 days. Many animals died en route. Steam ships, introduced in the 1880s, had larger carrying capacities and were faster.
A watery grave
In 1861 and 1862 over 50,000 sheep were shipped from Australia to Canterbury. A drought in Australia had reduced sheep prices, so it was profitable to ship surplus animals to New Zealand. However, many were in poor condition and did not survive the voyage. The Lyttelton Times complained about ships’ captains throwing dead sheep into the harbour, noting that ‘the whole shore line of the bay … is at the present moment fringed with carcases of putrefying sheep washed ashore by the heavy easterly swell’. 1
Fleets of smaller coastal vessels, known as ‘mosquito fleets’, were vital for transport and communication before road and rail links were built. Often farmers relied on these boats to transport their livestock to sales (and later freezing works), or to bring stock to their farms.
Some fleets worked around harbours such as Auckland and Lyttelton, while others sailed around the coasts, braving river bars and travelling inland to river ports such as Kaiapoi and Whanganui. Others worked Cook Strait, linking the North and South islands. As road and rail developed, coastal fleets declined. However, the Cook Strait boats carried stock until 1962, when New Zealand Rail’s roll-on, roll-off ferry service began taking animals across the Strait.
In the 2000s, launches and barges transported stock, usually on trucks, from the islands of the Marlborough Sounds and the Hauraki Gulf. Toll New Zealand’s Interislander ferry service and its competitor, Strait Shipping, carried stock trucks across Cook Strait.
The export trade
Exporting livestock began in the 1860s, and is still done by ship. In the 2000s, specially designed livestock ships could carry more than 130,000 sheep or 25,000 cattle. The export of live sheep from New Zealand began again in 1985 after several years of a total ban. Trade was mainly to the Middle East, where live animals are sacrificially killed on religious occasions such as the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).
Numbers exported increased from 416,000 in 1986 to more than a million in 1988–89. After a 1990 shipment in which 12% of the sheep died, a welfare code was introduced to ensure that mortality was no higher than 1%. Powerful ventilation systems, veterinarian checks and animal welfare standards were all part of the shipping process.
The export of livestock for slaughter ceased in 2008, and the export of cattle for breeding purposes will end in 2023.