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FG 175: Looking back at the changes in the British livestock auction system

The livestock auction system as we know it was starting to evolve 175 years ago. Angela Calvert looks back at some of the changes during that time.


Angela   Calvert

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Angela   Calvert
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FG 175: Looking back at the changes in the British livestock auction system

While there have undoubtedly been massive changes and challenges to livestock markets over the years, its principles of providing a fair, transparent way of selling livestock governed by supply and demand remain the same to this day.

 

The earliest markets were in locations where people came together to buy and sell all types of goods, usually in town centres.

 

Livestock was tethered or held in temporary pens and sales were made as a result of haggling between buyer and seller.

 

The first auctioneering business was started by Andrew Oliver, Hawick, in 1817, but it was the late 1840s before it became fully established.

 

It was around this time that the auction method we know today, with an auctioneer taking bids, really began.

 

Purpose-built markets with permanent penning and a sales ring were built, with Cockermouth in Cumbria thought to be one of the first in 1865.

 

An auction tax had been in operation since 1777, whereby any livestock sold off-farm was liable to a tax of one shilling in the pound.

 

This was repealed by Robert Peel’s Government in 1846, giving the fledgling auctioning industry a huge boost.

 

This era also coincided with the expansion of the railway network and many livestock auctions were located close to a railway station, giving buyers the opportunity to source stock from a wider area and for finished stock to be moved to abattoirs in major towns and cities.

 

Local

 

However, most stock was still driven on foot to the auction, which meant a network of livestock auctions sprang up, each to serve its local area.

 

As road transport developed, livestock haulier businesses were established and farmers started using their own transport, resulting in less livestock being moved by rail.

 

This was exacerbated by the Beeching Report of 1963, which led to the closure of many railway lines.

 

In 1963, there were 677 livestock markets in England and Wales and 855 in the whole of Great Britain.

 

Butchers accounted for 97 per cent of the retail sales of meat, with many of these buying out of livestock markets.

 

By the 1970s, the growth of the motorway network and introduction of larger vehicles meant animals could easily be moved around the country, resulting in the need for fewer markets.


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Supermarkets were also becoming a major influence and, by 2017, sold 64 per cent of all retail beef.

 

The fact that they are, on the whole, supplied by processors which operate on a deadweight policy, has impacted massively on the number of finished stock now sold through markets, particularly cattle.

 

However, most store and breeding stock, including a large percentage of pedigree animals, continue to be sold at live auctions.

 

The impact of disease within the livestock industry has had a knock-on effect for markets.

 

The 1967 outbreak of foot-andmouth caused 430,000 animals to be slaughtered on 2,300 farms.

 

BSE hit the UK cattle sector in 1996, resulting in the EU banning British beef for 10 years and the relentless spread of TB and the restrictions imposed by it continue to hit livestock markets hard.

 

The foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001 saw markets closed and very limited trade or movement of animals for more than a year. This was the final blow for some markets.

However, against the predictions of many, auction markets have continued to survive and thrive.

 

Testament

 

Chris Dodds, executive secretary of the Livestock Auctioneers’ Association, says: “The fact livestock auctions system survived the 2001 foot-and-mouth crisis is testament to the resilience of farmers and demonstrates just how much they value and support markets and the Key dates important role they play within the livestock industry.

 

“I do not think the number of finished cattle sold through markets will decline much further and the percentage of sheep has been fairly static for a number of years.

 

“However, one of the biggest challenges facing markets is disease and the Government’s inability to control TB is having a massive impact on how farmers can market stock.”

 

The last 20 years have seen rationalisation of markets with closures and, in some cases, the amalgamation of auction businesses.

Many of those which have survived have re-invested and in some cases moved to larger premises, generally out of town and created agri-business hubs, the first of which was York in 1971 and many others have followed.

 

In addition to providing additional income streams in terms of rent for business operators, they enable farmers access a whole range of services relevant to their business.

 

These can include agricultural merchants, professional services and, in some cases, health care and pastoral support on their visit to the market, as well as providing a vital social hub for the rural community.

 

The introduction of technology in recent years has had a big impact on how markets operate.

 

Scott Donaldson, president of the Institute of Auctioneers and Appraisers in Scotland and joint managing director of Harrison and Hetherington, says: “Since I started my career in 1985, the biggest change is the introduction of technology, computer market systems and the internet and how this has evolved and improved the service livestock auction marts offer.

 

“Buyers want more information, and the ability to display details in the ring about the animal being sold, such as breed, sex, age, farm assurance and health status, has been a massive step.

 

“Markets have modern facilities, are strictly regulated and operate to a high standard of animal health and welfare. They provide a service fit for the industry and which is acceptable to all parts of the food chain.”

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