In a bid to ensure a continued supply of food, auction markets continued as best as possible this week, despite growing concerns over the spread of coronavirus and how best to operate for the long-term safety of staff and customers.

However, with the public having stockpiled food and other essentials for a good 10 days and restaurants and hotels told to close their doors, demand for sheep meat plummeted.

On Monday, several auction marts sent sheep vendors home because there were no buyers with a lack of demand both on the home and export market caused by several countries on the continent in lock-down, and a population that had been stockpiling.

“No-one knew this was going to happen until first thing on Monday morning,” said a shocked Jim Craig, managing director of Craig Wilsons, based at Ayr.

“We had 3000 prime ewes and hoggs booked in for the market and by 8.30am we were told our buyers couldn’t handle them because there was no demand.”

It was a similar situation at Lawrie and Symington’s Lanark market, which although it sold a handful of sheep to one buyer, it also ended up sending most home.

Archie Hamilton, head sheep auctioneer with L and S, is confident both their prime and store sheep sales will however resume next week, with some demand on the continent and Easter and Ramadan, which falls a week later, fast approaching.

Such was the collapse in the sheep trade, the GB SQQ for old season lambs fell almost 73p per live kg on the week on Monday, or £30 per head, to 188.64p with the cull ewe trade showing a similar response, dropping £37 to £71.70.

Throughputs were also down dramatically by just shy of 19,000 head.

The first day of the working week saw 15,752 old season lambs sold through the auction marts south of the Border to average 188.9p per kg while just 1882 were sold in Scotland at 180.2p.

Volumes and prices slipped further on Tuesday too, with just 5102 cashed through the live ring in England and Wales at 188.9p, while only 731 were sold through Scottish marts to average 176.4p.

Commenting on the trade, David Pritchard, joint managing director of Harrison and Hetherington, based at Carlisle said: “We got a phone call at 10pm on the Sunday night saying demand for sheep would be less due to some orders being cancelled, so for all we went ahead with our prime sales at Carlisle and St Boswells on Monday, we suspended the sales for the remainder of the week to allow the market to resettle and re-adjust.

“We needed the few days to put a plan into action to look after the health of our staff and our customers and to re-schedule our sales, but from Monday we will be going again with a drop and go service. Our regular consignors and anyone else can notify us beforehand of what stock they will be bringing in and we will let our buyers know what will be available.

“We are working as best we can with skeleton staff, and working from home as much as possible, but the good thing is, the auction markets are seen as key workers in the supply of food,” Mr Pritchard said.

George Purves, managing director at United Auctions was also adamant auction marts should remain open – despite the fact abattoirs and auction marts have been closed in Eire for more than a week, and those in the North shut their doors on Monday.

“It is imperative we keep sales going to ensure supplies for the food chain. If the finishers run out of stock, they will have nothing to sell and fill the supermarket shelves with.

“We have to get the raw material to those who can finish it and stock those shelves,” said Mr Purves adding that their store sale at Stirling had gone ahead on Wednesday, with more than 1000 head of cattle booked in.

The prime sheep sale at Stirling was also due to continue on Thursday, although the same sale at Huntly was cancelled. Store cattle are to be sold at Huntly (tomorrow) Saturday, too.

Farming co-operatives have also been left in the lurch, too, with abattoirs dedicated to the export trade either having reducing their working hours or shut up shop.

Jonny Williams, joint operations director with Farm Stock (Scotland) said demand on the continent for prime lamb had plummeted, although there does appear to be reduced supplies required in Belgium and Luxembourg.

Commenting on the beef side, Vicky Warcop, from Farm Stock, added that despite the Macdonalds burger chain closing its doors, demand is very strong for prime beef, although cull cows, most of which are exported, have slipped back 15p per kg.