Having a good night at Bentham

Bentham, the last small town before the white rose is swapped for red, or more accurately High Bentham, as Low Bentham is regarded as a village, has had a livestock auction mart since it was established in 1903.

Thirty-five years ago a bright young auctioneer arrived fresh from Cirencester College and with a desire to move from his homeland of Malton to the west where he saw the action in the livestock world take place. He settled, enjoyed his new environment and then witnessed a gradual decline in numbers.

It was around twenty years ago he was responsible for a move at the farmer shareholder livestock mart at Bentham sending it on an upward trend that continues today.

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“Our game changer was shifting to a night sale,” says auctioneer and manager, Stephen Dennis. “Kirkby Stephen started theirs slightly before, but our move transformed the mart. Prior to it we had a fatstock sale with two or three buyers who controlled everything. By going to a Wednesday evening we turned back the clock penning up all kinds of sheep to sell through the ring whether they were to fatstock or store sheep buyers.

Stephen Dennis chief auctioneer at Bentham Auction Mart taking charge of the spring lamb sale.

“The morning sale hadn’t been working. Back then there was a much bigger pool of auction marts nearby such as Hellifield, Sedbergh and Haslingden that have all gone now. Bentham wasn’t on the buyers’ radar. We felt the night sale would mean buyers who were elsewhere during the day might come here too. Building a network of buyers gives vendors confidence when they bring their sheep they will make a good price. Our numbers have built massively, so much that Bentham is often gridlocked on market night.

“We now attract vendors from Norfolk, Suffolk, Oxfordshire, Scottish Borders, Isle of Man and Northern Ireland and there are always around a dozen buyers. Thirty years ago this was a seasonal mart with nothing in spring and a boom in autumn. We now average 4,000-5,000 sheep throughout the year whether old or new season lambs and cull ewes.” Stephen explains how the halal trade is now such a vital part of the livestock market sector and why two weeks, one already gone and one to come next week, are almost as important for Bentham Mart as they are for Muslims.

“At the beginning of May we had 6,500-7,500 sheep on one Wednesday evening. It was a big day just before Ramadan when Muslims feast before the month of fasting. Ramadan ends this year on Wednesday, June 5, the same day as North Sheep at the Franklands’ New Hall Farm near Rathmell. We’re anticipating big numbers once again with cull ewes and prime hoggs, along with the early part of the new crop of this season’s lambs. For everyone coming to North Sheep during the day it’s an ideal time to take a look in from 4 o’clock and see just how this small town comes alive.”

However, this certainly does not mean Stephen and Bentham Mart will not also be present at North Sheep.

“We will definitely be at New Hall,” says Stephen. “It’s right on our doorstep and the Franklands don’t just attend Bentham Mart they also buy top quality breeding stock, our best gimmer shearlings, prize tups and bring back their lambs to sell.

“I found out the hard way many years ago that you do yourself more harm than good if you’re not at events to maintain your profile and show support for our sector, but we will also have a busy evening down here.”

Stephen is conscious of how the livestock market world is continually changing and how inflated prices, while great news for the vendors, can sometimes backfire in the longer term. He’s also aware of the market for lighter lambs at present as the heavy lamb trade is well served.

“Because the price became so inflated last spring, I believe some of the meat processors and abattoirs moved away from lamb meat to pork and chicken where they could make a bigger return. It harmed the lamb market and hopefully this year we can win them back.

“Spring lambs averaged £2.35 per kilo last Wednesday with the better ones making £3. That wasn’t an unreasonable price. We are also finding the halal trade is now looking to purchase a more superior product and that is helping.

“Heavy lambs were in short supply this time last year, but there appear plenty about at the moment after the tremendous spring everyone has had. That means the lighter weight lambs are in shorter supply and there is a strong export market for them.

“Last week Beltex X at around 36-37 kilos were probably making more than a traditional 45 kilo supermarket type lamb, so it’s worth vendors looking at what they have that looks right around that mark just now.”

Bentham Mart holds auctions most Tuesdays and throughout the day on Wednesday with the 4pm sale the game changing highlight.