The latest sales figures for England and Wales, from the Livestock Auctioneers Association (LAA), show 200,000 more sheep were sold through markets than in 2013.
It is the fourth consecutive year of increasing sheep sales, and it demonstrates the enduring confidence in selling animals in the ring.
The figures chart quite the turnaround for an industry that suffered a serious period of decline, when more than a decade ago the foot and mouth outbreak forced many marts to shut and never reopen.
Since then many of the remaining marts have been expanded and relocated to out of town locations, and trade is holding steady against other threats, explained Chris Dodds, the LAA’s executive secretary.
“Despite the many challenges auction marts face – often from people who have never set foot inside one – and the competition from online systems and direct selling, farmers are voting with their feet, numbers sold have increased and the livestock system is as crucial as ever to British farming.
“The extra 200,000 sheep that were sold through auction marts last year will have experienced modern handling facilities staffed by well-trained drovers. They will have been sold by auctioneers who have the best interests of their farmers foremost in their minds. And they will have been purchased by people who could stand round the ring able to choose exactly what they want to buy.”
Mr Dodds said he passionately believes in the longevity of the mart system.
“Looking to the future, I would encourage anyone thinking about entering into a direct supply agreement with one of the major retailers or abattoirs to think again. With major multiple retailers struggling to maintain sales, direct contracts might not be the best way for farmers to secure a long-term sustainable business.”
Auctioneers in Yorkshire reported similar trends of increased trade in the past year.
Stephen Burley, sheep auctioneer at York Auction Centre, said: “Our sheep numbers have increased significantly of the last six months. We are consistently getting a decent trade and we are selling well against the deadweight market.
“I think what’s driving it is both the quality of the stock and breeding has improved so we get greater competition round the ring.”
Mr Burley said sheep prices - currently averaging around £2 per kg for hoggs and £2.80 per kg for Spring lambs - were fairly consistent last year which had bred confidence among sheep farmers.
Giles Drew, auctioneer at Northallerton Auctions, said the number of sheep traded through the Applegarth Mart were up by around 20 per cent last year.
“We have strong buyers here,” he said. “We try to funnel it and bring the best buyers here. We get 12 to 15 buyers around the ring for each auction, from the local butchers to the big retailers.”
Across England and Wales last year, some 2.68 million store and breeding sheep were sold through marts, up from 2.53m a year earlier.
In addition, 7.28m prime slaughter sheep were traded at livestock markets, up on the 7.24m in 2013.
While the number of store and breeding cattle was down slightly, the number of calves sold rose by 4.5 per cent.
The LAA’s Mr Dodds added: “The number of calves sold through our markets rose last year and while it isn’t a huge jump, it does suggest a return of confidence in the beef sector.”