Foot-and-mouth special feature.

Foot-and-mouth 10 years on: How auction marts coped

As the foot-and-mouth crisis raged on, cattle markets which once reverberated to the sound of livestock and chatter of farmers went quiet as they closed for 13 months. Leading figures from the auctions share their memories and look at how the sector emerged to meet the needs of 21st century farming.

Chris Dodds, executive secretary, Livestock Auctioneers Association

Chris Dodds was working as an auctioneer in Penrith, Cumbria, at the time and did a lot of valuations of livestock when the disease took hold.

He says: “I remember that time very well. Livestock auctions were shut for over 12 months and business went from large throughputs to absolutely nothing almost overnight.

“It was hugely devastating and I don’t believe much good came out of the crisis. Even for those farmers who restocked, it meant bringing animals in that they were not used to and which brought in problems of their own.”

Pre-BSE in 1995 there were 210 auctions in the UK. Now there are 122 and Mr Dodds believes a lot of this is down to the disease outbreaks, especially FMD.

He adds: “Disease and welfare regulations are now a lot more stringent in auctions because of FMD. A lot of the more modern auctions were able to adapt to this but many of the older sites were forced to close because they could not come up to standard.

“The enforced closure during FMD was a bad thing financially, but the crisis highlighted the social role the markets had to play.

“A lot of our members actually opened their canteens so farmers who were hit with the disease could meet up with friends and neighbours in the same position. The process of talking to friends proved a huge thing for a lot of them when it came to coping emotionally with the outbreak.”

 

Robert Venner, Greenslade Taylor Hunt & Sedgemoor Auction Centre, Somerset

Heavily involved in Taunton and Bridgewater auction marts when foot-and-mouth struck, Robert Venner believes the market system is stronger post foot-and-mouth than it was pre-2001.

“Markets are stronger than they were before foot-and-mouth because it spurred on a rationalisation in the number of auction marts operating,” he says.

“Foot-and-mouth prompted a rationalisation throughout the entire farming industry, right from grassroots upwards.”

Following the enforced closure brought on by foot-and-mouth, Bridgwater reopened for a short period but suffered because prices did not immediately recover and sales were switched to Taunton.

Mr Venner adds: “We tried to help people out during the crisis by doing private sales on farm. Driving around the countryside with buyers was okay but it stunted competition. When markets reopened it maximised competition and meant both buyers and sellers did not have to compromise on quality or price.

“One of the legacies of foot-and-mouth has been the six-day rule. If a farmer buys stores or dairy cattle from us on a Saturday it means they can’t come back on Monday or Tuesday if, for example, they have fatstock to sell.

“We need to get a system in place whereby the six-day rule relates to the animals, not the holding.”

 

Jeremy Eaton, general manager CCM, Skipton Auction Mart, North Yorkshire

The purpose-built market at Skipton, which opened in the early 1990s, underwent a big change post foot-and-mouth as large parts, which were once used for selling livestock, were turned over to other enterprises such as vets and even a college campus.

“We had already planned to redevelop the market pre foot- and-mouth,” says Jeremy Eaton. “FMD actually gave us the impetus to carry that through and focus the selling into one part of the site.”

But he still has vivid memories of the weeks and months in which the disease ravaged North Yorkshire.

He adds: “I remember sitting in the homes of farmers who were resisting the cull and they just kept receiving phone calls pressurising them to accept the slaughter. It was awful to witness.

“It was the end of April, maybe even early May, before the disease hit this part of the country and we went from being quiet to working seven days a week doing valuations of stock.

“FMD also accelerated the rate that many smaller dairy herds went out of business and it changed the way we operated.

“We stopped selling sheep off the plank and started putting them through the ring and we stopped running sales concurrently.

“If you are a grassland farmer selling a diverse product, auction marts remain the place to sell your stock and that bodes well for the future.”

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