Country Smallholding - - Sheep Breeds / Husbandry -

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?

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