Hefted is a word often associated with sheep in the hills. A truly hefted flock is one that has been bred for generations on the same piece of land. In that case it seems that many farmers, particularly in the upper Dales of Wensleydale and Swaledale can similarly be regarded as a hefted people.
Perhaps that’s why Stephen Walker, manager and auctioneer at Leyburn Auction Mart finds the question of whether there was ever any doubt about the mart reopening after the foot and mouth restrictions of 2001, and a further scare a few years later, as one that he’d never before considered.
“Up here in the Dales there isn’t much of an alternative. Farmers put their tups out with the ewes and farm for the future no matter what happens in Brussels and they like their sheep and cattle. They’re genuine, honest, hard-working people who really don’t have too many options. They can’t exactly put a plough into the ground in Swaledale and turn it arable.”
Nonetheless the knock-on effects of diseases and changing rules and restrictions have seen to a significant decrease in sheep and cattle farmed in the hills. Stephen estimates that livestock in the area is down around 20 per cent since the turn of the century.
“The reasons for the reduction in numbers have come about in various ways. When the rural payments scheme came in the system changed. Livestock farmers had been receiving monies for every animal they kept, called headage payments. This encouraged farmers to produce far greater numbers. When that was scrapped prices weren’t good enough and there was little point in flogging away with big numbers to get nothing in return. Livestock still needs to be fed and kept and that costs.
“This is a big grouse shooting area and the owners of these moors don’t like so many sheep. Then there’s the move to conservation. The thing is that the landscape is how it is because it has been farmed for centuries not because of the way it was made. If it’s not farmed properly it will deteriorate. If ever there’s a time when you want to put sheep back on a moor it’ll now be difficult. Sheep lose their hefting nature and the land becomes overgrown.”
These are Stephen’s warning shots for the future but it’s fair to say that life at Leyburn Auction Mart is going well at the moment. World prices have stayed resiliently strong for some time and that’s reflected in the demeanour of those around the ring.
“We will always find a buyer for whatever stock. Of course if it’s good it will always sell very well, but nothing ever leaves here unsold. We’ve had a really good run and most sectors have been buoyant for quite a while. It shows around the ring too. We have 10-12 prime sheep buyers every week and about 30-40 men buying store cattle. The prime sheep buyers include agents buying for others too, but the cattle men generally buy for themselves and they know what they’re looking for.”
Dairy cattle are sold at Leyburn monthly. Falling numbers of dairy farmers in the area brought a change from weekly. “The weekly sale had to go because there just wasn’t the demand. It’s not that there aren’t the numbers of cows in the area it’s just that they’re in the hands of less farmers.”
Breeding sheep sales in autumn are a major draw with Mule gimmer lamb sales and others for Charollais, Texel and Teeswater breeds.
Leyburn Mart started in 1919 and looks well-set to celebrate its centenary in five years. It is run by ten farmer directors and employs three full-time staff of which Stephen is one and a number of staff on sale days. A café is run by the Sunter family.
Leyburn Mart sale days are Wednesday and Friday.