Markets enjoy rural rebound

Foot and mouth killed off many auction marts. On the tenth anniversary, Chris Berry reports on how they are fighting back

Indelibly printed in livestock farmers' brains were the funeral pyres of 2001 when hundreds of thousands of animals were slaughtered. Many feared for their livelihoods and livestock markets around the UK closed their doors never to reopen.

In Yorkshire they had been disappearing fast over the previous decade – Stokesley, Bingley, Penistone, Doncaster, Seamer, Pannal, Otley Bridge End – had already bitten the dust. Driffield, Ripon and Masham were to follow.

But thanks to decent prices for sheep and cattle – and pigs – during the past two years there is currently a spring in the step of the farmers who support the markets and the livestock markets themselves.

Last year was good for them all. Jeremy Eaton has seen the long-term picture develop. He has been the general manager at Craven Cattle Marts, also known as Skipton Auction Mart, for 10 years and has worked there since 1980. He believes that their success is down to positioning.

"We have become more diverse as a centre, but at our heart this is still a livestock market charged with providing sales facilities for our farmer shareholders.

"Every time I try to analyse it and think there might be some way in which technology might improve the market system, I come back to the opinion that the livestock market system is the best system for transacting livestock. Our customers walk into our office after selling their stock and can take a cheque home with them. They can bring whatever stock they like so long as it's sound and healthy. Nobody has found a better system than the livestock market."

"One of the reasons why farmers have returned is that the pound has been relatively weak against the euro. That has proved to be attractive for exporting carcases. Our bread and butter trade is built around the selling of sheep and that is built in turn on the back of 40 per cent of those carcases sold nationally getting exported into northern Europe. New Zealand has seen a decline in their sheep production so there isn't as much conflicting product on the market in northern Europe because of that.

"Another reason is that you find the big multiples, whose preferred method of sourcing stock has been through the abattoir door, as opposed to supporting their local market, have had to come to us because the only place they can find to buy large quantities of sheep that fit their specification is here. Supermarkets have come back to the auction marts."

"Ten years ago we took a long hard look at what we were doing around the site. It was big and unwieldy and we weren't able to derive enough income from just selling livestock one or two days a week. We took the view that farming was changing and that we needed to bring other things on board to make the site sustainable. Rural training was a big part of that and then we attracted one or two agricultural companies to run their businesses from here."

Upturns return across county

The remaining county marts have all seen upturns in recent times.

Selby has seen greater use of its premises with many additional sales and the new Cornforths Country Store on its site.

Thirsk has the county's newest mart and is proving a flagship for the future with its title of Thirsk Rural Centre. It hosts major events and has several agricultural and rural stores within its walls.

Thirsk was also host to a new Holstein Sale held in Autumn 2010 aimed at helping dairy farmers to the east of the county. Hawes is the major North of England Mule sales centre.

CW 1/1/11