BUYING AND SELLING SHEEP IN SEPTEMBER
As we head into autumn, we’re entering the peak trading period for breeding sheep. Since time immemorial, farmers and smallholders have bought and sold ewes and rams during September and early October, with some of the bigger sales being major social gatherings in the rural calendar. Potential purchasers converge from all corners of the country, and the vendors (often accompanied by family members, turning the event into a proper weekend away) put a huge effort into presenting their animals to the best advantage.
The ringsides are packed, shoulder to shoulder, with both buyers and spectators, and the caterers (and bars) do a roaring trade. Even the lesser sales, held on a weekly basis at local auction marts, are a social lifeline for some country folk, with agriculture being a lonely occupation, especially for the aged. A trip to market, and a meal in the canteen, provides a spot of light in an otherwise dull week. Depression among farmers is all too common, and the familiar sight of an agricultural chaplain at the market provides a welcome listening ear for many.
And then along came Covid, and social distancing. Moving forward, how will we cope?
After the initial cessation of activity in late March, livestock markets quickly resumed trading (of primestock only initially) in order to keep the country fed. The flurry of panic buying that we witnessed in the supermarkets awakened people’s awareness of the need for food security, and the farming industry rose to the challenge. However, some adjustments were required to ensure social distancing, so 'drop and go' became the new normal.
Vendors arriving at the market weren’t permitted to leave their vehicles. Instead they simply reversed up to the unloading bays, where their trailers were emptied by the market staff who then sorted and penned the animals appropriately. The vendors then left the site (unless they were also registered as buyers, and were intending to make purchases on that day). Personally, I found it very strange not to be penning my own sheep, chatting with potential purchasers, or standing by the auctioneer as he took the bids. On the plus side, I was home early and could put in a decent day’s work on the farm.
Since then, as restrictions have gradually been relaxed, markets have come up with various ways in which they can comply with social distancing guidelines and continue trading as we enter the busiest period:
• One-way systems have been introduced.
• The number of people allowed to accompany each consignment may be restricted (so no more family outings).
• Everyone on site may be required to register for track and trace purposes.
• The wearing of masks is becoming commonplace.
• Only a limited number of buyers may be allowed around the ringside at any one time. Social interaction is discouraged.
Personally, I think that some of these changes are here to stay, and in some ways it’s not a bad thing. Vendors are now looking at alternatives, such as online sales, which allow individual breeders to take greater control over the promotion and marketing of their livestock. As a result, the days of herding them all together into one overcrowded space for sale (with all the biosecurity risks that that entails, both for people and animals) may be numbered, but I do seriously worry about how some people will cope with the loneliness.
Will packed ringsides be a thing of the past?