When livestock markets were shut down for a year during agriculture’s annus horribilis in 2001 there were those who believed the writing was no longer on the wall for their future, but rather that the ‘for sale’ signs would relate more to the buildings than cattle, sheep or pigs.
The legacy was that many never reopened, some have since been knocked down and are now supermarkets. That ultimate irony is not lost on farmers who have seen such supersized businesses as a contributory factor behind their decline, but hold on just one second before we descend into another round of blaming supermarkets for every ill that has come the way of farming; and before we talk down today’s remaining livestock markets.
It is now 13 years since foot and mouth disease restrictions brought chaos to the farming world, yet it could well be argued that it provided a watershed period in which the livestock market world and livestock farmers took stock and in some cases rediscovered their raison d’etre, aided in some cases by those abattoirs that had taken full advantage of livestock farmers’ sorry plight and mercilessly ripped them off.
Selby Livestock Market is one of Yorkshire’s success stories. Having moved out of its town-based James Street premises in 1988, to make way for a supermarket, the new purpose-built mart on Bawtry Road celebrated its 25th anniversary last year.
There is little doubt that Selby has benefited from the closure of several other marts in the region such as Driffield, Doncaster, Penistone and Barnsley but its sound footing is also attributed to the astute skills of past chairmen and auctioneering legend Robin Screeton who passed away last year.
Richard Haigh is the main auctioneer today and is ably supported by two others, Chris Clubley and Jonathan Wood. Richard has carved out his own significant reputation since he moved from Scotland a decade ago. He’s a no-nonsense, speedy auctioneer who understands the value of cattle and doesn’t mess about in achieving the best price for the farmers. The beasts are no-sooner in than they are out of the ring with Richard around and his alacrity is clearly well liked by all.
Cattle prices had largely been riding the crest of a wave for several months right across the UK until Christmas but prices have been dipping in recent weeks since the start of the year. This should be tempered by the fact that prices are still good despite being down on where they were pre-Christmas so it’s not all bad.
Richard has his own take on the situation.
“We are still very busy. The cattle trade has been a bit up and down since Christmas. Seasonally that would be the case anyway as there is less money around and that’s pretty much how it is being reported back. Those who buy the beasts here are certainly having a harder job selling the meat just at the moment.
“There is some talk of imported meat coming in from Poland. From what I understand that is happening as a result of the pound being strong at present.
“Our beef trade has been underpinned by limited foreign competition in recent years and this will be the first time for a while that UK producers have been up against imported meat. That means there is a competitive product now coming in that is comparatively cheaper. I wouldn’t say this has as yet had a huge impact but it is something we are conscious of.
“Although prices have dipped they haven’t fallen away massively by any manner of means. We’re still finding that there is a regular supply of quality fatstock coming forward each week and in the short to medium term we are hopeful that fat cattle prices will increase once more. I’d say the top end of the market has held its value better than the average cattle.
“One of the factors that is helping livestock farmers at the moment is the price of corn having come down. That’s helping make up for any reduction in price.
“On the whole it’s still a healthy situation although it would be fair to say that the cattle men are probably less buoyant than we have seen over the past year or two.”
Selby has one of the largest number of cattle buyers around its fatstock ring every Wednesday and although native breeds may be making a comeback in some ways it is the continentals that are still what the majority of butchers are looking for.
“What our buyers want is a good lean beast with no waste that kills out well and because of our great position and excellent transport links they will come here from right along the M62. We draw our stockmen from Grimsby to Huddersfield and all points in between. We also do very well from the South Yorkshire area as well as the East Riding and because of that it’s not uncommon for us to have as many as 18 buyers around the ring.”
More than 500 sheep are sold each week and there are half a dozen regular buyers. Continental lambs such as Texels and Charollais always sell well along with Suffolks. The pig market at Selby has established itself as one of the largest in the country, whilst also being one of the few that continues to sells pigs. Somewhere between 500 and 700 pigs are sold at the mart each week.
Selby has always professed to be ‘Yorkshire’s Friendly Market’ and it is easy to see why. It may be too much to ask everyone to put a smile on their faces as they are deep in concentration around a sale ring but the feeling that pervades is that everyone here enjoys what they do – from Brian Bartle and Jonathan Wood who get the cattle in and out of the ring in double-quick time; to the families that were taking advantage of watching the action this week as their children were on their half-term holiday.
A mart full of characters
Among Selby’s regular customers is Ken Jackson. The Stubbs Walden farmer has visited for 50 years and once had a run in with a bull: “I was penning one of mine up when it came tearing down the passage. There was a gate open to another pen and it shot straight in but was in a hell of a state. I heard people calling me to shut the gate and I tried. Unfortunately I didn’t quite get it shut and it hit the gate, which hit me! I never knew another thing that day. I was told I just went spark out for 20 minutes and ended up under the bull.”