By Malcolm Scott

With a tender process underway for Orkney’s main Northern Isles ferry contract and the issue of funding for inter-islands ferries rumbling on, we’re all too aware at Orkney Mart how critical a good ferry service is to us.

The new contract will be in place by the end of October, fortunately after the busy September sales period has taken place. While we hope this won’t involve too much change, it is inevitably a source of concern.

As an island, we’re in a unique position on Orkney and we’ve had to adapt our sales to reflect this. When the premises were built we ran weekly sales for around 200-250 cattle but the trend now is for bigger monthly sales, where we can have around 800 cattle going through the ring in one day.

This clearly presents some logistical problems, both in getting buyers to the ring and getting cattle on and off the island. We’re restricted by plane times, so our contingent of southern buyers generally arrive around 10.30 am and leave by 4 pm, so we have to run a slick operation to get everything through the ring in such a limited time.

We can’t praise North Link Ferries highly enough and their assistance in clearing the backlog of cattle after big sale days (as highlighted in a feature in The Scottish Farmer last year).

After one December sale last year the freight ship broke down and we thought we’d be left with around 500 cattle to lairage but North Link managed to secure another ship and got all the cattle off the island.

On some occasions, moving cattle is just not physically possible, with the weather being a huge factor. We’re fortunate to have 200 acres surrounding the mart and we also produce our own silage, which does keep costs down when we have to fodder the bed and breakfasters. Also, at this time of year, we have to keep cattle inside, so we’re very aware of livestock farmers' costs, especially as we must buy in straw for bedding.

Our customers live here on the mainland and North and South Isles, in the Orkneys and don’t always manage to attend the sales in person, so we’ve found huge benefits in live streaming both online and through facebook. This means anyone can watch the ring and access real-time prices as they happen.

This service is very well used among our clients and also feeds into the importance of transparency through the ring.

Malcolm Scott is manager of Orkney Auction Mart, a member of IAAS