Dunedin-based meat processor Silver Fern Farms said it was consulting with staff at its North Island Wairoa mutton processing plant and its South Island Mossburn venison plant on options for closing the two sites.

Silver Fern Farms chief executive Dean Hamilton said the move reflected changing livestock flows. "Both plants operate in regions where we have other plants which can manage the combined levels of livestock processing in the region," he said in a statement.

Employees at Mossburn are being given options to work at the company's Waitane, Kennington or Finegand sites. Frasertown employees will have the option of transferring to Takapau or Pacific in the Central Hawke's Bay. Frasertown employs 67 staff, while Mossburn employs 43 staff.

Mossburn, which hosted New Zealand's first deer farm in the early 1970s, has styled itself the ''Deer Capital of New Zealand''.


The president of the Otago Southland branch of the New Zealand Meatworkers Union, Daryl Carran, was contacted and said there was only ''short notification'' by Silver Fern over the restructuring.

While staff knew venison volumes had ''plunged'' and last year was ''a very poor season'', some would still have been shocked by the closure, he said.

He asked other employers in Northern Southland to ''come forward'' with any work for the displaced staff.

''Mossburn's a small place and with not many work opportunities,'' he said.

He cited numerous industry concerns leading to sheds shutting, ranging from killing overcapacity, declining numbers of breeding ewes and subsequently lambs, fewer bobby calves and the impact of dairy conversions.

Last season at Mossburn, a meatpacker grossed only $14,600 while one of the highest paid workers grossed about $20,000, he said.

''Some suspected it couldn't carry on like that,'' Mr Carran said.

The New Zealand sheep meat industry has been in decline over the last few years which has meant a surplus of processing capacity.

Latest data from Beef and Lamb New Zealand showed the sheep flock falling to its lowest level since the 1930s Depression.

Sheep numbers fell to 28.3m by June from 29.1 million a year earlier, compared with its peak of over 70 million in 1982. Lamb numbers this spring are forecast to drop by 2.9 per cent to 23.3 million.

The government lasts month gave the green light for China's Shanghai Maling Aquarius to acquire half of Silver Fern Farms, which is New Zealand's biggest meat processor and marketer.

- with Otago Daily Times