Yorkshire's livestock markets report a healthy but fluctuating trade under restrictions

Yorkshire’s livestock markets are reporting a largely healthy, yet highly fluctuating trade in the three weeks since coronavirus restrictions were first implemented.

New restrictions are in place to keep markets running and people safe

Two weeks ago the market's also implimented new livestock regulations which sees farmer vendors driving stock to market and immediately returning home.

While there are fears should coronavirus afflict employees in abattoirs, that could then have to shut down; and concerns there may be a glut of heavier hoggs, normally having been grown-on for the now dormant catering trade struggling to find a market; plus several export markets closed as countries have shut their borders, the emphasis has been on the positive and working under the new restrictions.

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Stephen Dennis, manager and auctioneer at Bentham Mart, reported that while panic buying had a massive impact in the first week, it had been a combination of factors that created an ‘insatiable demand’. “It wasn’t just coronavirus and panic buying that brought about an increase in numbers and healthy prices," he said.

“Our sales and the sheep price had been holding up well in the early months of the year. We also had a very strong export market, plus forward buying for Easter and Ramadan.

“That first week – March 18 – saw 7,000 prime lambs in the market. Up until that point we had been regularly at 4,000. Prime hoggetts averaged a highly respectable 245p/kilo and demand for ewes was at an almost unheard of level at £200-plus per ewe.”

The magnitude of fluctuation was emphasised in Bentham’s numbers the following week. “We saw trade evaporate. We went from 7,000 to less than 400 prime lambs, a 95 per cent drop in numbers, as the demand that had been met the previous week, plus due to the closures of all restaurants, hotels, cafés, schools, pubs, literally the whole catering trade disappearing overnight.

“Added to that, the export trade also suffered as several countries closed their borders and the price slumped to a remarkable average from 245p to 175p/kilo in a week.

“Last week the market began finding its feet again when we had just shy of 1,800 fat lambs trading at an average of around 200p/kilo.

“One fear is there may be a glut of heavier hoggetts that would normally have served the catering sector, particularly for the Easter trade. However, with cull ewes presently in short supply the heavier hoggs may be a replacement for those in the Halal trade, albeit only attracting a cull ewe price.”

Tony Thompson, auctioneer at Thirsk Mart, reports a similar experience in the north of the county: “We had 3,500 fat lambs the first week of coronavirus with trade hitting a high average of 248p/kilo. The following week were down to 1,000 and trade was just below 200p/kilo. We came back in the third week with 2,500 and an average of 210p/kilo.

“We’d had 2,500-3,500 consistently for four to five weeks prior to coronavirus and trade had been reasonable. Last week everyone was looking for everything again as the panic buying weeks appear to have calmed down. Our best quality heifers went for 260p/kilo in the first week and reached 270p-plus/kilo last week.

“One of the worries in the meat trade would be if people working in an abattoir contracted coronavirus, because there is a danger it could then have to shut, but most abattoirs will work on behalf of others in extreme situations.

“The feedback so far is that the smaller butchers and farm shops are coming back into their own as buyers are starting to go back to shopping locally. They are delivering and being a part of their communities and hopefully this will then remain a loyal trade in the future.”

Richard Haigh, of Selby Mart, that majors more on cattle and pigs, echoed Stephen’s words at Bentham: “We saw a lift in trade in all sectors of cattle, sheep and pigs in the first week, but I wouldn’t say it was all coronavirus-related.

“It just happened to coincide with this being a time when quite a lot of cattle that have been fed inside all winter are ready, and the usual one-week hike before Easter.

“We had a big show of cattle and the demand was there leading to a lift in price of a heifer averaging 210p-220p/kilo and with the top ones making 250-260p/kilo. The trade pulled back a little on price in the second week as buyers had got on top of supply and there wasn’t the same demand. The third week saw less cattle presented but the trade hardening with a better price as they competed for fewer animals.

“We have a really good retail trade from farm shops and butchers, and they have all seen an upsurge in their business. We are also still doing a very firm trade in fat pigs.

“It’s hard to predict what is going to happen and I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a fluctuating situation for a few weeks now, around the Easter and Bank Holiday weeks.”

Without exception all marts throughout the country are working completely within the new regulations.

They, probably more so than any other industry sector, know only too well about disease or virus connotations having lived through their own personal hell in 2001 when Foot & Mouth disease brought them to a standstill.

“Our farmer customers like to be in the ring with their sheep, to assist with the sale of their own stock,” said Stephen Dennis. “It creates greater contact with the buyers and brings about greater camaraderie in the mart but needs must and they fully understand the situation we are all in right now.

“We had a calf sale last week and I have never seen such an orderly, regimented sale with every buyer adhering to the two-metre rule.

“You miss that farmer involvement and the atmosphere but at the moment safety is paramount for all of us.”

(Note: Photographs in this article were taken prior to restrictions regarding coronavirus as only buyers, in addition to mart staff, are allowed into the marts).

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