May 13, 2015

Sheep farming in New Zealand. Missing sheep – where do they go?

By Dr Clive Dalton

How many of these sheep will disappear without explanation?
Accurate records
The first requirement of any researcher is to make sure that all records are accurate, so the resulting conclusions can stand peer review and are reliable for when the outcomes are used in practice. 

Breed comparison trial
From 1972 to the early 1980s when I ran the breed comparison trial at the MAF (Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries) Whatawhata Hill Country Research Station, looking at mainly Romney, Coopworth and Perendale breeds, I got very frustrated over the regular problem of sheep we had on the records from birth,  then just disappeared over time from the farm. 

Tallies never tallied
Our tallies never fully tallied over the year, and nobody could work out why.  It was particularly vexing because the farm was fully fenced, and there was no scrub on the grazed areas for sheep to hide.  It was standard practice as our technicians and stockmen had to bring the tags into the office of all dead sheep they found so the records could be updated.  We had a foolproof system - so we thought!

The problem I suspected was not unique to us at the Whatawhata research station. I was sure that other research stations had problems too, but we never discussed them as we were all very competitive and didn’t like to admit failure - and inaccurate records were certainly a failure.

Massey University research
So I was most interested to read recently that a team of veterinarians at Massey University were going to research the problem of ‘wastage in sheep flocks’, and were taking detailed records in a few fully recorded flocks to find out why sheep died, and how big the wastage problem was.  But what caught my eye in particular was that they had already found that sheep just went missing and could not be accounted for.

Dobbie–Dalton survey
What got me into trouble at Whatawhata was because I started to talk about the problem, and soon realised that it was one of those ‘don’t mention the war’ issues, and you never raised the problem openly. So I enlisted the help of my MAF colleague John Dobbie to collect some data, as he had spent many years as a Farm Advisory Officer in the MAF Hamilton office specialising in sheep and wool, so he knew what went on in the North Island hill country really.

A few local farmers  were willing to talk to us about the problem and give us their honest tallies of sheep losses they couldn't explain, and it was clear that if you had 3% disappearance you could rejoice, but when it got to 5% and even up to 9% on some farms, you kept very quiet and when asked, you always quoted 2-3%!  In Scotland it’s called ‘the black loss’, and you can’t imagine many Scottish shepherds saying much about their unexplained losses and giving anyone their tallies!

Table of data from survey

Possible reasons
We used to go around in circles suggesting possible reasons why we had sheep that were never seen again after their last recording. All ewes were weighed pre-mating, pre-lambing, and at weaning.  Lambs were weighed at birth, weaning and monthly after weaning up to June (7 weights on each lamb/hogget).

Our biggest Whatawhata loss was in weaned lambs from December into the New Year until about March, and among the breeds, the Perendales were the best at turning up at each muster.  The reasons for this were never worked out.

Everybody had a theory for missing sheep which ranged from misread tags, fly blown deaths, escaping through the boundary fence into the bush, and poor mustering which straggle musters never proved to be true.  Rustling came up as the final suggestion, but we could never find proof which would satisfy the police.

MAF Head office auditors
Things got so bad at one time that auditors in suits arrived from MAF Head Office in Wellington with new gumboots to count all the sheep on the station.  The technicians and shepherds thought this was a huge joke to have to muster the sheep, and I’m sure they just ran the same sheep around the yards for the auditors to keep counting.

Multi-million dollar loss
Then things heated up and I was called  to the carpet of the Director of Ag Research at Ruakura (Dr Lyn Wallace) because of the cover of the NZ Journal of Agriculture for February 1972.  I think Gordon McLauchlan was editor at the time.

The designer made a clever picture of sheep fading away into the distance, with the heading ‘Missing sheep - a multimillion dollar loss’.  If you put any sort of value on sheep, the problem certainly was a massive loss for the industry because of the large size of the national sheep flock at the time.
Unfortunately the article was published when Prime Minister Muldoon’s Sheep Retention Scheme was at its zenith – so we were blamed for inferring that farmers were collecting money for phantom sheep. Maybe they were, and there was always plenty of comment that it did go on.

Shepherds’ solution
But in my private inquiries, I learned of a way to successfully hide the problem used by shepherds at the Lands and Survey Department to keep their Field Officers off their backs.  They simply fudged the docking tallies (their first accurate tally) by keeping extra lamb numbers up their sleeves, to be drip-fed into the tallies later on in the season.   

This was an effective way to cover up lambs that simply disappeared without trace after weaning and the reasons could not be explained. Under  Lands and Survey management, shepherds had to tally sheep every time they were moved from paddock to paddock so there was regular monitoring for audit purposes.

There was no conclusion - and I have no doubt that the problem remains today.  Our missing sheep must have left the planet without trace!  I wish the Massey team better luck than we had at researching the issue.

Further reading
DOBBIE, J L; DALTON, D. C. (1972).  Missing sheep - a multimillion dollar loss.
NZ Journal of Agriculture, 124(2):19-20.

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