Sheep farming has been crucial to the development of the New Zealand economy and for 130 years it was the most important agricultural industry – when the combined income from wool and sheep meat dominated agricultural earnings until the late 1980s.

With 40 million sheep, 10 for each person, the country has the highest density of sheep in the world. There are 16,000 sheep and beef farms in New Zealand, making it the world’s largest exporter of lambs. Out of this industry came the need for advancing scientific knowledge of sheep health, welfare, production and biology. This is driven in part by the New Zealand Veterinary Association (NZVA), and the Society of Sheep and Beef Cattle Veterinarians (Society of Sheep and Beef), whose specialist knowledge contributes to enhancing the efficiency of the sheep and beef cattle industries and their roles in the national economy.

New Zealand is widely known for its innovative agricultural technology and even has an International Sheep Centre where sheep research is undertaken. It was at the centre’s base at Massey University in Palmerston North where New Zealand hosted its first International Congress for Sheep Veterinarians in 1989, the second congress to be held. Staged every four years, the congress was won again for New Zealand by host body – The New Zealand Veterinary Association and the Society of Sheep and Beef Cattle Veterinarians – with help from Tourism New Zealand’s Conference Assistance Programme (CAP) fund.

The theme of the 2013 Congress was “Connecting Sheep and Science”, where topics ranged from production grazing and economics and new and emerging diseases, to food safety, therapeutics and vaccines, sheep products, and working dogs. Almost 500 delegates travelled to the summer conference held at the multi-purpose Rotorua Energy Events Centre, with 47 per cent of attendees arriving from 31 countries. The event was organised by The Conference Company in conjunction with NZVA and the Society of Sheep and Beef. The programme included a range of plenary sessions and keynote speakers spread across the week.

Outside the conference rooms “Dinner in the Sky” was a highlight, where delegates enjoyed spectacular views across the city, Lake Rotorua, geothermal areas and surrounding hinterlands from high up the side of Mt Ngongataha. The informal barbecue at Skyline Rotorua followed a thrilling downhill ride on Rotorua’s famous Luge, a three-wheel cart with a unique braking and steering system. For an international cultural dinner organisers chose the acclaimed Agrodome, where guests enjoyed the renowned Agrodome Sheep Show, and learned about breeds of sheep unique to New Zealand. The gala dinner was set in the tranquil beauty of the Spanish Mission-style Blue Baths in the city’s Government Gardens.  The Blue Baths once operated as a public bath house from 1933 until 1982. In 1999, after 17 years of abandonment, the baths were restored to their former glory allowing glamour and style to reign at the Blue Baths once more.  Delegates dined in what was once the 600 square metre main pool, protected by a high roof and encircled with balconies, from which Four Tenors and the Diva provided entertainment.

The partners’ programme included a historical tour of Rotorua; a trip to the hot mineral pools Polynesian Spa; a visit to Whakarewarewa Village and cultural show; a look at Kiwi and other native birds and species at Rainbow Springs; a walk around the mud pools at Hell’s Gate geothermal reserve; a visit to the sacred coloured waters of Wai-o-tapu; and a lake cruise on the Lakeland Queen.

The Society of Sheep and Beef hosted pre-conference tours of the North and South Islands to showcase some of the best New Zealand has to offer. The four-day North Island tour took in Auckland, Hamilton, Taupo and Rotorua and offered up volcanoes, sheep shearing, geysers, mud pools and wildlife centres. The 12-day tour around the South Island stopped in at the scenic towns of Greymouth, Wanaka, Te Anau and Tekapo. Franz Joseph Glacier provided stunning vistas and adrenalin junkies picked up the pace in Queenstown, while visits to Dunedin and Oamaru caught the attention of the more culturally minded. There were also visits to a range of farms, scenic attractions Milford Sound and Walter Peak Station, and wildlife tours at Natures Wonders on the Otago Peninsula and an eco-tourism stop to see the Black Stilt Hide, an endangered bird near Twizel, catering for all interests.

Congress organising committee chair John Smart said he received feedback that it was the best ever congress so far. Delegate Arthur Redpath of Switzerland said New Zealand delivered a “top level congress, in venue, science and events”.