Situated minutes away from Junction 10 on the M20, Ashford livestock market is ideally located to serve the counties of the south east, as well as linking into the motorway network to attract buyers from throughout the country. Angela Calvert reports.
Ashford Cattle Market Company, one of the very first businesses to be registered at Companies House way back in 1856, relocated the market nearly 20 years ago to its current site when the High Speed Channel Tunnel rail link compulsorily acquired the former town centre site.
Careful consideration by market directors and a high quality build specification has resulted in a first class market facility, with penning for 10,000 sheep, or 5,000 sheep and 900 cattle with purpose-built lairage facilities.
Elwyn Davies, auctioneer and managing director of Hobbs Parker Auctioneers, the operators at Ashford, says: “Livestock, agricultural professional work and agricultural property have always been at the heart of the Hobbs Parker firm but expansion over the years into car auctions, estate agency, planning and property consultancy, technology and accountancy services have brought great strength, by its diversity, to the company.”
The whole site is very much a thriving business hub, with another 16 businesses based on the cattle market site offering a wide range of commercial services along with the more conventional market roles of a weekend stall market and car boot sales.
Mr Davies says: “We have tremendous support from producers right across the south and south east of England. Far from being covered in tarmac and concrete, the region has a very strong agricultural industry with committed farmers in the sheep and cattle sectors.”
Ashford, by any standards, is a big sheep market and attracts buyers and sellers from far and wide. More than 250,000 sheep are sold annually, with the weekly Tuesday market seeing some 120,000 finished sheep and 35,000 cull ewes sold from the plank. While from August through to December, Friday sales see, in total, 100,000 store lambs and breeding sheep run through the main sale ring, enabling buyers to view the quality and health of stock on offer.
While the numbers of dairy producers in the South East has declined over the last 20 years, those left remain committed to the industry and herd size has expanded considerably. Beef suckler herds have replaced dairy in many cases and Ashford enjoys a good balance of breeds and types of store cattle passing through the main cattle ring.
Mr Davies says: “As with so many regions, we are seeing a declining trend in the South East of producers finishing cattle and sheep. Finishing is getting more specialist and more costly, with more and more producers recognising the simplicity and advantages of selling as stores.”
The 15,000 store cattle and 80,000 store lambs attract buyers from throughout the country. Cattle buyers from the Eastern counties and the Midlands recognise the quality on offer, while the generally late born South East lambs find their way to roots and dairy grass in the Eastern counties, the Welsh borders and the South West.
Market days are well attended at Ashford, with agricultural traders and their stands enjoying the contact with market customers.
Pigs and calves are sold on a fortnightly basis and there are pedigree sales for Sussex cattle, in spring and autumn, and Southdown and Texel sheep in autumn.
Mr Davies is optimistic for the future of markets but appreciates the challenges they face.
He says: “The strength of the live market system is that it sells all types and caters for all needs. Communication and trust with both buyers and sellers is vitally important. We work closely with producers and employ two fieldsmen who help with on-farm selection and advice. Presentation is important and we work very hard to present level lots to meet buyers’ specifications.
“Every week, every year is different, with challenges brought about by exchange rates, the availability of feed, livestock supply and consumer demand, all impacting on the trade.”
Ashford Market remains an integral part of the farming community within Kent and beyond. A demonstration of its importance comes each Christmas at the annual cattle show where most exhibits and handlers come from schools and Young Farmers Clubs within the county. Many Kent schools still retain school farms where great care and attention is taken in educating the next generation about agriculture. At a recent AHDB stockjudging event held at the market more than 100 12-17 year olds from local schools took part.
Mr Davies says: “Ashford Market is in a fortunate position. Supporters in the past have ensured that a high quality modern facility was developed at a time when many other markets were pressured into closing. Current supporters, both buyers and sellers, ensure the market remains very busy, viable, and with an impact on trade beyond its county boundaries. Ashford, with young motivated people involved in the market and the farms around it, is looking far into the future.”