Local auction marts are now fewer, but more sophisticated

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My only experience of cattle being sold on the street was at Elphin in Ireland during the mid-1960s.

It paid to watch your step, and back, and every shop had barriers at the door. Cattle stood in groups and dealers walked up and down. Haggling was expected, concluded by the dealer walking away or farmer and dealer spitting on palms before hand-shaking. The most memorable comment was from a farmer: “I didn’t get as much as I expected. But then I didn’t expect I would.”

I also “helped” walk a small group of cattle several miles from farm to mart. Hard to think how that would be greeted now as the traffic queues formed.

Yet, as veteran auctioneer John Thomson describes in his latest book, there was a time when all cattle were sold at large-scale gatherings, many after being walked hundreds of miles by drovers. Or on town streets – 600 in a day on Berwick’s Hide Hill in 1886, just before the town’s first auction market opened in what is now Castlegate car park.

Mid 19th century to mid 20th was the heyday for local marts, as Mr Thomson explains in “Farmers Went To Market”, a history of what led up to marts, how they worked and what happened to them in the northern counties of England. A few are still in business in Northumberland – Acklington, Hexham, Wooler. Most are gone – Berwick, Belford, Alnwick, Bellingham, Cornhill, Crook, Felton, Morpeth, Rothbury, Tow Law.

The few remaining are much bigger, more sophisticated, complying with modern rules on hygiene and waste disposal, more secure and safer handling of livestock, accessible to today’s big livestock lorries and close to main roads, handling thousands of animals compared with the few dozen that went through some of the old marts.

There is no sign of the auction mart system dying out in spite of the increasing trend for animals to go straight from farm to slaughterhouse and processor on fixed-price contracts. Many farmers still prefer to take their chance in the auction ring. But they continue to change and adapt as they have to do. “Farmers Went To Market” can be ordered by phoning 01228 528939.

Changed days, too, for some oilseed rape producers. When the crop first became popular with farmers and more widely grown during the late 1980s onwards, opposition to it was remarkable. Never a summer went by without stories of how flowering oilseed rape was causing a wide range of respiratory problems and making lives a misery. We don’t hear much about that now. What we do hear is that cold-pressed oilseed rape oil is being sold as a healthy product with sales last year up 26 per cent.

Encouraged by its popularity, a group of eight farmers in Scotland have joined to ask that their product be given European Union protected designation of origin.