It is Christmas sale season and the region’s livestock markets are buzzing. Chris Berry visits TV’s Summer Wine village Holmfirth.
Longer lasting than Nora Batty’s stockings! Holmfirth may have lost its TV series Last of the Summer Wine, but its livestock market is still going strong and appears to be rolling back the years.
Despite significant changes in land ownership and a reduction in the number of farmers who still make their living purely from agriculture Holmfirth Livestock Market has retained its place in the social and business life in this small market town outpost of South Yorkshire.
This week it was packed with more flat caps than the long-running BBC comedy show ever had as farmers flocked to the Christmas Primestock Show and Sale. Auctioneer David Moxon was delighted but not surprised by the turnout.
“The Christmas Sale is very important especially to the local farmers and butchers. It brings the whole community together and it is the main day of the year for the market. We’re not the kind of market that gets buyers from supermarkets coming here but we do have great local butchers who support it every week.”
Of course butchers don’t just attend because they are being supportive, but because they need produce to display and sell in their shops and with the current trend moving back to local food Holmfirth Livestock Market is ideally situated to serve a small but demanding population.
“We sell quality stock every week but it is fair to say that some farmers keep what they consider to be the best of their livestock back a week or two to try and take the big prize. It means a lot to have the champion beast at a Christmas Sale.
“Today’s winner was Andrew Roberts who only lives four miles from the market. He has a suckler herd and he picks one or two of them out ready for the show. I don’t think anyone around the ring would disagree with Richard Haigh’s choice that Andrew’s Limousin was the top beast at the show today.”
The reason why Christmas shows and sales are such a draw all around the county’s livestock markets is the kudos that can be attached to stock if it is successful. Local butchers compete to buy prize-winning stock and display the winning trophies and rosettes in their shops or on their market stalls. It’s a form of assurance for their customers that what they are selling is the best beef available.
“Christmas shows have always been a magnet for buyers and sellers. This year has been no different. Bryan Symons who has his pitch on Huddersfield Market bought the winning beast. He’s one of our regular buyers and he understands that his customers like to know where their meat is coming from and that they will stick with a particular farmer’s stock if they enjoy it. That’s how reputations are made and Andrew Roberts has won the Christmas cattle title for the past three years.”
Holmfirth is now the last livestock market standing in South Yorkshire following the demise of Penistone Livestock Market over a decade ago. But David believes its success has had more to do with the hard work and teamwork and a willingness to expand than the loss of competitors.
“We draw from a wide area these days attracting suckler cows from as far as Howden, Goole and York.
“Penistone’s closure did make a difference but that only brought about a small percentage increase as a lot of other stock went to bigger markets such as Bakewell, but we can hold our own against them and other markets at Selby and York.
“Farmers are still sometimes surprised by how much more their stock will make here at the mart rather than selling deadweight. I think people often undervalue their stock at home.
“Our regular Tuesday market day could survive on its own as we regularly put through 300-400 sheep, 30 calves and 40-50 store cattle; but our horse and tack sale on a Saturday and fur and feather sale on a Thursday evening really help.
“The tack sales usually run to around 300 lots and although horse sales are not what they were they still contribute to the overall effort. There was a time when we would put 40-50 horses through each week, that’s been closer to 10-20 recently.”
David first came to the market as a haulier, which is still his main business. He still plays his part in bringing cattle to the market on behalf of other farmers, and he takes finished stock to the abattoirs.
He’s also seen how life has changed in the valley around Holmfirth. “When farms come on the market in this valley the land gets carved up. The house goes for residential use, the barn goes for conversion and a lot of the fields go to the pony brigade. That means there is a lot of non-farming money in the valley. In some ways that means farming around here is going back to how it used to be with smallholders wanting to try their hand at being self supportive.
“There was a time when farmers could scratch a living out of 60-70 acres here, but that’s not the same now unless they have another income. Farmers often come down to our market with their own tractor and trailer bringing maybe four or five store cattle. It works for them because otherwise they would have to travel a round trip of 40-50 miles to get to another mart.”
Deregulation ends reliance on milk
At one time Holmfirth was a strong dairy cow livestock market but since deregulation the valley is no longer a strong milk producing area. David has harnessed modern technology in order to make the best out of the stock that comes available.
“Over the years a lot of dairy farmers have left the sector and there isn’t the same use of market facilities. What happens now is that if there are any milk cows ready to come on to the market I have a list of potential buyers and I text them all on a Monday evening along with any suckler herds coming in. I text up to a 30 mile radius and it seems to work.”