People who farm unusual breeds tell Dionne Christian why they find it so appealing

Even urbanites must have noticed, while heading south or north on holiday, that sheep aren't as abundant as they used to be. Once they were everywhere, 60 million walking wool carpets and spring lamb chops roaming valleys and mountains near and far. Not any more. Sheep numbers are down and there are now just 31.1 million of them, says Statistics NZ, which contradicts a widely held belief of there being 20 sheep for every one of us. Now it's only seven.

Nowadays, some farmers are earning a crust farming more exotic livestock like buffalo, highland cattle and rare-breed poultry.

Ginni Alexander - Highland cattle farmer

When Ginni Alexander saw highland cattle grazing in Scotland, she thought they were adorable. Nineteen years ago she acquired her first highland cows, which she now farms for beef at Ardargie Fold in Ardmore, South Auckland.


"I first saw highland cattle [HC] in Scotland while on holiday with my parents. I was about 24 and my family [had] a dairy farm in Ardmore. Dad said he would like a couple of HC in the front paddock, which I thought was great. When you drive past a paddock full of black and white cows you don't look twice. But when you see HC, you tend to sit up and take notice.

"They're gorgeous animals. The breed has been around since the 1300s but is a recent arrival in New Zealand. HC were first imported to the South Island in the early 1900s but no records remain of what became of these animals. The present New Zealand herd is approximately 20 years old.

"Dad died 25 years ago and I took over management of the farm. It's 138 acres [56ha] and I lease most of it to a dairy farmer but have about [16ha] for myself. I got my first HC 19 years ago. I started with two in-calf cows. During the years, I've strived to build up a herd of animals which are good natured, well structured and with a reasonable growth rate. HC may not be as tall as other beef cattle but they are deceptive in the amount of beef they yield. I'm always surprised at the weight.

"A herd of HC are known as a fold and my fold - Ardargie Fold - numbers around 60, including 20 breeding cows. I allow myself a few favourites, but have always bred for beef. HC are among the top-five beef animals in the world, producing a fine-textured and marbled meat which is flavoursome, low in fat, and high in protein and iron. They have a high meat-to-bone ratio, too. There are a small number of breeders who have combined resources to produce quality highland beef for the table.

"I've been showing my cattle for more than 12 years now. This has taught me a lot about the conformation of beef cattle in general and what to look for in a good Highland beast.

The judges' comments, good and bad, have been invaluable during the years. As well as showing, I take cattle out on display as 'petting' animals. This year I was at the Fieldays in Hamilton and in November I'll be at the Highland Games in Three Kings.

"I've met so many lovely people from all over New Zealand and Australia, through the New Zealand Highland Cattle Society. I probably won't make a profit because I don't have the numbers, but this gives me work/life balance. It's so peaceful wandering round the paddocks at the end of a tough day. I work as a nurse in the plastic surgery unit at Middlemore Hospital, so that's my career.

"Is the farm a hobby? Maybe. I just decided I would give it a go after Dad died and I'm still doing it. Perhaps I'm not what you might regard as a successful farmer, but I thoroughly enjoy it. I want to improve the farm and make it a lovely property."


Sandy Mahon - Rare-breed poultry breeder

Sandy and her husband, Shane, live in the Tahuna Valley between Auckland, Hamilton and Morrinsville, where they breed 32 different varieties of rare-breed chickens, ducks and geese. Through their business, Poultry Valley & Lifestyle, they sell fertile eggs for others to breed from as well as hatched chicks.

"This was a bare block when we arrived and when I say there was nothing here, I mean there was nothing here. We've put the house on, built all the fences, sorted out a barn, yards and working area and established Poultry Valley. Of course, it's taken - and continues to take - longer than we ever imagined, partly because we've become so busy with all facets of the business, doing it all on our own with no outside help.

"We have 32 different breeds here now and that includes chickens, ducks, chinese geese and our two emu. We brought the emu as pets, so we're not doing anything with them.

Some people have suggested selling the chicks, but I really don't want to risk being unable to [let them go].

"We had only a few chooks to begin with and originally sold eggs for eating, but there wasn't much demand where we are. Then people began to ask me about whether I would sell fertile eggs - as some of our chooks were rare breeds - and that's how it started. I discovered Trade Me and things really took off. We started to get buyers from all over the country. It coincided with the interest from people on lifestyle blocks - wanting birds for meat and eggs, and in the more urban areas wanting chickens either for eggs or as pets.

"We package up and post fertile eggs to people who can't come and collect them, as well as selling pullets, which are young domesticated birds ready to find new homes. The most popular breeds include orpington, coronation sussex, rhode island reds, plymouth rock, wyandottes and langshan. I think my favourites are probably the orpingtons and langshan - they're the ones who look like they're wearing fluffy trousers.

"We also have ducks. The muscovy eggs and ducks are very popular. We do sell some mature birds, mostly large drakes, to people for eating. We get a lot of people from different ethnic groups who want to buy a live bird so they can carry out special prayers and rituals according to their differing beliefs.

"I think most people are surprised by the variety of chickens we have here - and also what it takes to breed them and the amount of work involved. We have to keep each breed very strictly segregated and, in turn, if you have different colours - for example, there are blue orpington, black, buff and white orpingtons - they have to all be kept apart, too.

"It costs around $4000 per month in feed and Shane and I can't go out much in the evenings because we have to have all the birds safely locked in their houses at around sunset. And all are let out again as soon as the sun comes up each morning. We have to be very vigilant about their health and welfare. I check every morning at feed time for any injuries or if any aren't looking that well.

"I've learned as we've gone [over] the years and I'm not ashamed to say I have made mistakes along the way, but you have to learn from those to move forward. I think we're in a good position now. However, we're also at the point that so many small businesses reach in that there's too much work for us but we don't quite have the income to hire staff to help out. There are also the administration expenses. I certainly I don't do this for the money.

"Why do I do it? I'm genuinely interested in the birds and keeping the rarer breeds around."

Phil and Annie Armstrong - Buffalo farmers

In 2009, Phil and Annie Armstrong joined with Annie's parents, Chris and Pam Willis, to import 19 water buffalo - 17 in-calf heifers and two bulls - from Queensland to the Whangaripo Valley to make buffalo-milk cheeses. At this year's New Zealand Champions of Cheese Awards, the Whangaripo Buffalo Cheese Company claimed a gold medal for its mozzarella. The Armstrongs have two children, Marin, 7, and Maro, 4, and live on an 80ha farm at Dairy Flat while the buffalo graze on a 20ha lot near Wellsford.

"I grew up on a dairy farm but left school and spent the next 17 years on fishing boats as a deep-sea fisherman," says Phil. "That took me all over the Pacific. I was away a lot. In one year I had just 56 days on land, so it doesn't suit family life. Still keen on travelling, when Marin was 18 months old we visited Germany - we own the Hanoverian breeding stallion Limonit and wanted to see where he came from - and Italy for a holiday.

"We headed to Mozambique because Annie, who has an agricultural degree from Massey University, had an idea about doing something with beef farming there. Chris, my father-in-law, got kidney stones and that convinced us that Mozambique, if you developed health issues, was probably not a great place to be. So instead we talked about the buffalo-milk cheeses we enjoyed in Italy and decided to go for it.

"We imported a mix of first-cross Asian water buffalo and Italian riverine because they're well suited to our climate, fairly low maintenance and a good dairy animal. The herd spent about five months in quarantine. I had to re-think any ideas I had that they were just like the cows I'd grown up with. None of the buffalo had been milked so it was a learning process for all of us and we had to take things slowly with them and learn to be patient as the cows let down their milk slowly. And they have horns and can weigh up to one tonne. Buffalo have definite personalities, they're quirky, real individuals.

"Each one produces between five and eight litres per day compared to a cow which provides about 17 litres, but the milk is ideal for cheese-making. We didn't know a lot about cheese-making so that was also a steep learning curve. We did some training with Over the Moon Dairy Company in Putaruru and initially sent the milk down there to get it made into brie, blue, and fresca (a soft curd cheese) while we constructed a cheese-making facility at our Dairy Flat property. Annie and Pam do the cheese-making while I work during the day as a builder, then I milk the buffalo in the afternoon. It used to take me around four hours, but now it's around an hour and a half to two hours. We're going to build a new milking shed, so that should speed things up.

"This year, for the first time, it looks as if the business might be becoming self-supporting. We're staying focused on getting our products into restaurants and we have a stall at the Matakana Market on Saturday mornings. We have started to diversify by having the bulls taken to slaughter at a licensed abattoir and having the meat turned into buffalo burgers, which we sell at the market. They're getting quite a following. I think there's room for more people in the industry so there's more product, which will help build and encourage demand."

Glen, Carina and Neville Thompson - Alpaca farmers

With no farming experience whatsoever, the Thompson family has grown its Brookside Alpacas in Waiuku into an award-winning business supplying alpaca wool and fleece to manufacturers around New Zealand as well as making their own fibre products.

"I was working in the banking and finance industry in Papakura but living in the central city and getting very sick of the stop-start twice daily commute," says Glen, "so I bought a place in Waiuku around 2004 with a one-acre paddock. Even with a ride-on mower it was taking me up to three hours to mow it so I let my neighbour's horse graze there. But it started chewing the fenceposts and generally making a mess of the place.

"I didn't have enough land for large stock animals, sheep seemed like a lot of work and goats are renowned escape artists. I hopped online, read about alpacas and decided they would make ideal organic lawnmowers. I had this idea in the back of my mind about making a business out of it, so I got a pregnant female and a wether [a neutered male] around 2004.

"All around me, properties were being sold so when I got an offer from a developer for my place I took it and purchased our current property. My dad, Neville, moved out here to join me and my wife, Carina, who is a chemical and environmental engineer.

"We have around 44 alpaca now. The fibre is strong but lightweight and it's very soft. It has a different structure to sheep wool and no lanolin so this makes it hypoallergenic and workable straight off the back of an animal. It does take a little longer to shear an alpaca - around 15 minutes. With her background, Carina helps formulate natural dyes and drives the product development side of the business.

"The best thing was joining the Alpaca Association, which produces a doorstop-sized manual which became our bible. The association runs workshops, training sessions and keeps everyone up-to-date with what's happening in the industry. In 2008, we joined a trip to Altiplano in Chile to purchase more alpacas and see how they farm. A typical farm is 3000ha, where they rotationally graze around 300 animals. That was an eye-opener, because those farmers are dealing with things like keeping their animals safe at night from the likes of mountain lions.

Glen's love of alpacas has inspired his father too: "I invested in a couple of alpacas shortly after Glen got his pair," says Neville, "and used to travel out from home in Papatoetoe on the weekends to see them. I'm a motor mechanic by trade and figured I would enjoy alpaca farming more than retiring, sitting around drinking cups of tea and going to play bowls."