New Zealand is known all around the world for many things; snow-covered mountains, dramatic landscapes, black sand beaches, unique birds, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and sheep. Yes, sheep.
Few things are as iconic to New Zealand as sheep. Why? Well, they have always been an important part of industry in New Zealand. In fact, for 130 years sheep farming was the country’s most important industry. Today, there are actually an estimated 27 million sheep in NZ – that’s 5.6 sheep for every one person!
So, if you really want to get to know NZ, then you need to take the time to learn a little bit about these animals and the farms that they call home.
Mt Nicholas High Country Farm near Queenstown is the perfect place to go for a real authentic Kiwi experience. This family-run, working merino wool farm offers visitors the chance to see what wool farming is all about while exploring one of the most scenic farms in the country.
But there is so much more that is involved in merino wool farming than what first meets the eye. That’s why in this blog, we are telling you the Mt Nicholas Farm story including how they produce merino wool and what makes them worth a visit!
History of the farm
Mt Nicholas Station was originally settled back in the 1860s. Life wasn’t easy here in those times with such a challenging climate and landscape. Heavy snowfalls, limited resources, and newly introduced species like rabbits made running a successful farm a challenge. The farm was also very isolated with the nearest town a two-day horse ride away.
Through all of the challenges, Mt Nicholas Farm prevailed and in 1976 the Butson family took over the farm. Today, the Butson family still owns and operates Mt Nicholas Station. Original owners Robert and Linda Butson have now retired to Te Anau, while their adult daughter Kate and her husband Jack, have taken over management. It has, and always will be, a family-farm!
Mt Nicholas Station Today
Today, Mt Nicholas Station is one of the biggest farms in New Zealand and is home to approximately 30,000 merino sheep and 2,200 Hereford cattle. The farm stretches over 100,000 acres and sits is one of the most beautiful locations across Lake Wakatipu form Queenstown.
Mt Nicholas farm prides itself in using many traditional farming practices today. Their annual “fall muster” is a ten-day event that involves seven workers on horseback as well as 30 dogs that are used to muster more than 9,000 merino wethers down from the mountains.
But it isn’t all about tradition at Mt Nicholas as they also implement some new technology that allows them to be as sustainable as possible. In fact, Mt Nicholas Station is almost completely self-sustainable with hydro-electricity produced on the farm as well as almost all of the food.
From the sheep’s back to your back
Unlike most sheep that are bred for meat, merino sheep are specifically bred for their wool. Merino wool is a special type of wool, that is extremely fine and soft so it doesn’t itch and can be worn close to the skin. It is biodegradable, warm, fire-retardant, wicks away moisture, and doesn’t s smell when you sweat. These qualities make merino wool a highly sought after fabric all around the world for many types of clothing and use.
Shearing at Mt Nicholas typically begins in late August and goes until October. During this time, six shearers remove the wool from the sheep by hand using a special type of machinery (similar to men’s hairdressing clippers.) After the wool is removed from the sheep, it is passed onto a team of 8 wool handlers who separates the wool based on what part of the sheep it came from. The wool from the head and legs differs from the main fleece and is used for different purposes.
After the wool is removed and separated, a specially trained person, a wool classer, grades each fleece for quality and micron, which is the fineness of the fleece. This grading determines what type of price the wool will fetch, where it will be sent and what it will be used for. The wool is then packaged by type into 180-kilogram bales before being sent away to companies who make clothing and products.
The wool produced at Mt Nicholas is sent out to different companies on contract. Approximately one-third of the wool produced by Mt Nicholas is sent to Icebreaker, an iconic New Zealand outerwear brand, where the other two-thirds are sent to Reda, a premium mill in Italy.
Visit Mt Nicholas Farm for Yourself
Mt Nicholas Farm is truly an interesting place to visit. You can explore the farm for yourself on our Mt Nicholas Farm Experience. Tours depart daily from Queenstown and include our Spirit of Queenstown Scenic Cruise which takes you to and from the farm across Lake Wakatipu, a farm tour including meeting the animals and some scenic viewpoints, as well as lunch! It is not only an educational experience, but also a unique tour that’s fun for the whole family!