Knowing who is going to buy and what they are looking for are essential requirements for a livestock auctioneer whose work doesn’t simply take place in an open booth with a gavel in hand once or twice a week.
Stephen Dennis has been an auctioneer at Bentham Mart, the westernmost livestock market in Yorkshire, for 32 years. He and his team have succeeded in turning it from an also-ran to one of the most popular sheep markets around. They sell beef and dairy cattle too, but it’s sheep where they’ve made their mark. This season’s autumn sales programme has been their best ever.
“Around a month ago in the build up to the Festival of Eid al-Adha we had a record show with over 9,000 sheep put through,” Stephen said. “It’s a massive time for us when Muslims eat more lamb and mutton.”
The festival honours the story of the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his promised son Ishmael before God intervenes to provide Abraham with a lamb to sacrifice instead. Bentham Mart’s geographic location between the large Lancastrian and Yorkshire conurbations means that it benefits from the increased business at this time.
“In the fortnight leading up to the Festival of Eid the demand for lamb can seem a bit like turkeys for Christmas. The Halal trade in our livestock market is now huge and our farmers have started to become more aware of it as demand has grown for all types of sheep.
“I would say that at least 50 per cent of all our sheep trade in the fatstock market will be going to Halal. And you can forget any myth about the Halal trade being based around inferior product too. While they are the main customers for mature sheep (mutton), cull ewes and hill breeds they are also buying the quality. It’s definitely a trade that has become an important part of what we sell here.”
While the spike in sales due to Eid is one element of Stephen’s autumn programme, the other main area is in breeding stock.
“We’ve just had our best autumn ever for breeding sales. This area is predominantly focussed around Mules whether they are North Country Mule lambs, Swaledale ewes or Blue Faced Leicester rams.
“We were judged as small fry in mart terms years ago but our gimmer lamb sales are now not just on a par with the rest, we now host one of the major sales in England. Other than Lazonby our one-day sale of Mule ewe lambs will be the largest in the country. We had 11,000 this year on the Saturday. Over its two days we have over 15,000. That now makes us a significant player.
“Alongside that the sale of Swaledale ewes has also increased markedly and our sale of draft Swaledale ewes is one of the leading sales in the UK. We’re very much on the map for anything that relates to Mule lambs, Swaledale ewes or Blue Faced Leicester tups.”
Bentham Mart hosts the society sales for Dalesbred rams and Masham gimmer lambs. These lessened in popularity during the 90s and but have started to show signs of improvement in the last decade.
“The Dalesbred ewe is a very good ewe but they are considered to have a little more wool than the fashion, particularly with wool not as valued as it used to be, and customers want a tighter skinned sheep than the Dalesbred is producing.
“However the Dalesbred, as well as producing a good Masham lamb, is now producing the Dales Mule. They’re now just starting to market it as such and I’m encouraging them to promote it. I believe the breeders can persuade people that the Dales Mule has its place and it does. After all if you can breed a Scotch Mule or Welsh Mule, what’s to say you can’t breed a quality Dales Mule – and they have been doing it already.
“We’ve just held our fourth annual Dales Mule sale and it continues to grow as more breeders become aware of the potential. It gives the Dalesbred farmers another strand as well as producing a good quality Masham lamb and to the undiscerning eye it’s hard to tell the difference between the Dales Mule and Swaledale Mule. It will be interesting to see how it develops.”
The main weekly sale day is Wednesday when dairy cows, calves, stirks, prime lambs and cull ewes are all sold. Some years ago Bentham shifted it to an evening sale that starts at 4pm and that continues to have been a popular move allowing buyers to come who can then fit two markets in on the same day; and sellers to either do the same, or simply find that they have more time to attend.
Tuesday sees store cattle sales, either once or twice a month dependent on the season, store lamb sales fortnightly and weekly cull cow sales.
Stephen comes from pedigree auctioneering stock and came to Bentham following his studies in 1982.
His father David was an auctioneer with Cundalls in the 50s and 60s and had his own auctioneering business, Kendrew & Dennis, in Kirkbymoorside.
“I qualified in rural estate management at Cirencester but always had more of a gift for auctioneering than going into farming. I’d felt that it was important I had the right qualifications for the professional work too. I took over the management of the livestock market in 1997 and I have a great team here.”