Despite its position in an area which has not restocked after 2001’s foot-and-mouth crisis, Ross-on-Wye Auction Centre still thrives. Laura Bowyer visits Gwyn Williams to find out more.
After the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak a lot of cattle and sheep were slaughtered in the southern region of Herefordshire, surrounding Ross-on-Wye, and many farms have not restocked since.
With the region having now developed into a largely arable and horticultural hub, Ross market seldom draws stock from within a 10-mile radius of its site.
Now run by Gwyn Williams and son, Richard, trading as R.B. and R.G. Williams, the market left the centre of the borders town in 1988. It moved to a new out-of-town site due to a lack of space in the market and the congestion caused by market traffic.
Local stock numbers have been further affected by the demise of the area’s sugar beet production, Mr Williams senior says.
He adds: “Farmers used to grow a lot of sugar beet here, but the plant shut in Shrewsbury, so production in this area disappeared. The beet tops were fantastic for finishing lambs, and before foot-and-mouth we were seeing between 4,500-8,700 lambs going through this market on a weekly basis.”
Currently stock is drawn from south and west Wales, north Oxfordshire, the Midland counties, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Somerset. In its own county of Herefordshire, they draw largely from the north of the county but very little comes from within the vacinity of the market.
Mr Williams says if surrounding markets had not ceased to operate around the time of foot-and-mouth, Ross would have had to stop, so they are lucky in that respect.
He says: “We have a very good sheep market here on a Monday. Not only do we attract quality stock, but we also get the returns for the farmer. A Lleyn Sheep Society sale is also staged in September.”
The market regularly attracts 10 major buyers of both cattle and sheep made up of local people and those from further afield, with Mr Williams saying there is no other prime cattle market from Ross to the West Wales coast.
Mr Williams designed the new site himself, with efficiency in mind. Boasting 31 unloading docks, 12 for cattle and the remainder for sheep, the market is well-equipped to handle large volumes of stock.
He says: “We have a streamline market here, it works well. One day, my son Richard sold 237 fat cattle singly in an hour. We have long rows of sheep pens to keep the flow of the sale. There are 19 pens in each row, we can ensure a continuous run of sheep in this way.”
Mr Williams says: “TB is very prevalent around here. If a farm is down with the disease they will not be able to sell any fat cattle, stores, calves or cull cows, so as a result our entries are down.”
The firm staged its first orange market on April 7, which Mr Williams says was a greatsuccess and they plan to make it a monthly event.
He says: “We have found red markets unsatisfactory, as sales were not reflecting the value of the stock. The stock could not go home again, so people just had to accept the money.”
TB is a problem Mr Williams faces first-hand as, although 85 years of age, he still carries out almost all of the firm’s TB valuations, travelling throughout Wales to do so.
Aside from TB, another challenge faced by the firm is growth in deadweight sales, which Mr Williams believes is partly driven by a shortage of labour on farm, which means some farmers are unable to spend the time at market.
The ‘six-day rule’ also needs addressing in his eyes.
Mr Williams says: “Frankly it needs abolishing as it is no longer necessary. Foot-and-mouth hit in 2001 but now we are in 2016. It is the same with the case of anthrax found in Wiltshire. The regulations are still in place and some people are missing out on up to £3 per lamb as the Chinese will not take the skins.”
Although originally from North Wales, Mr Williams has been auctioneering and carrying out professional work in Ross-on-Wye for 61 years. Prior to this he worked in London, as well as for a large firm in Hampshire.
Mr Williams says the firm is determined to continue to operate the livestock market at Ross, although the lack of stock in the immediate area is a real concern and several Midlands markets have ceased in recent times as their surrounding pastures became ploughed over.
Further to livestock, furniture sales hold part of the market’s business, with a monthly sale held on a Wednesday regularly attracting more than 200 visitors.
Also a well-regarded author on agricultural valuations, with four editions of ‘Agricultural valuations: a practical guide’ published, Mr Williams’ publications are widely used among university students studying land management and as a reference book being the only one to cover the topic.