New Zealanders are mourning the loss of the country's most famous sheep, a shaggy national icon named Shrek that was renowned for avoiding being shorn for years.

Shrek captured the public's imagination in 2004 after he evaded the annual shearing roundups for seven years by hiding in caves on his farm on the South Island. When finally found, he was clad in an astonishing 60 pounds of wool.

In a country where sheep outnumber people by nearly 10-1, Shrek's story of stubbornness and guile appealed to many.


Shrek is shorn by former world blade shearing champion Peter Casserly during a charity function in Cromwell, New Zealand, on April 28, 2004. (Simon Baker/Reuters)

After his capture, Shrek, a Merino sheep prized for having some of the softest wool, was shorn on TV in a broadcast picked up around the world and watched by millions. His story inspired three books.

"He was quite an elderly statesman," said owner John Perriam. "He taught us a lot."

Until becoming sick three weeks ago, Shrek toured the country, commanding $16,000 US for appearances and getting the star treatment wherever he went. In one appearance, Shrek was shorn atop a large iceberg that was floating near the South Island coast.

Shrek was one of about 17,000 sheep on the the 11,000-hectare Bendigo farm in the small town of Tarras. Perriam believes Shrek was able to survive the winters and avoid detection by moving about a series of sheltered caves and by munching on small native shrubs.

"It's bizarre that we missed him seven years in a row," Perriam said. "But from his point of view, it was the perfect environment."

'There's a yummy green paddock [pasture] waiting for you.' —Facebook tribute

After Shrek became a star, Perriam gave him his own barn and showroom. Shrek even had a personal caregiver look after him when he became sick, before the sheep was euthanized Monday at age 17.

Perriam said that as well as laying claim to being New Zealand's woolliest sheep, Shrek may also have been its oldest. Most sheep live for no more than six years before being slaughtered.

Since Shrek's death, tributes have been pouring in online, including on the Facebook page "R.I.P Shrek the Sheep." One wrote "Swift Wings Old Boy ... There's a yummy green paddock [pasture] waiting for you."

Perriam is planning a funeral service and will ask a friend to scatter Shrek's ashes atop Mount Cook, New Zealand's tallest mountain.