Livestock farmers are anxious about how coronavirus restrictions could impact important up-and-coming markets.

Neil Wilson, executive director of the Institute of Auctioneers and Appraisers in Scotland (IAAS), explains where things are and what might happen.

To keep everyone safe and ensure the continuation of marts and the livelihoods that depend on them, we have put in place stringent safety measures for farmers attending sales, and are continuing to deploy technology to help those at home.

We are also working to ensure that as many people as safely possible, can attend the all-important autumn sales, and that sales of the islands’ livestock can still go ahead.

I hope the following helps answer questions and provide a bit of clarity going forwards. IAAS will continue to work hard with national and local government, health authorities and our members to ensure the best outcome for Scottish livestock farmers.

What are the current restrictions at marts?

Things are different depending on whether you’re selling or buying, but 2m distancing is being maintained throughout marts.

To give stock the best chance of a good sale and allow marts to maintain a safe environment, only buyers are allowed to attend marts, and we have introduced a ‘drop and go’ policy for sellers.

Farmers selling, or hauliers delivering, must sit in their vehicle until a spot becomes available. It is recommended every second bay is closed off to aid physical distancing.

Once unloaded, you must leave your paperwork by the pen (or preferably email it beforehand) and then leave. To keep staff safe, vendors should not take paperwork to mart offices and should make a booking with the mart before arrival.

Buyers who wish to attend must contact their mart to register for a particular sale. Since places are limited to maintain physical distancing at all times, only genuine buyers already known to marts will be admitted. The number of people allowed in will depend on the size and layout of each mart.

On arrival, you will be checked in and contact details taken to aid the government’s Test and Protect programme. You’ll also need to sign out when you leave.

Additional hand washing stations, sanitisers and foot dips are in place across marts and you should see areas clearly marked to show where to stand around the ring. We are not insisting on face masks, but individuals can of course wear them.

To pay, you’ll be able to go to the office, but there will be a system in place to ensure distancing.

To remove animals, farmers and hauliers will need to stay in their vehicles until a loading bay is available.

You’ll then be asked to reverse in and from at least 2m away inform the staff what you are collecting. Staff will then deliver your stock to the pen beside the loading bay and it’s then over to you to complete the loading.

How can farmers buy/sell remotely?

Many marts have introduced technology to help farmers act remotely during lockdown, and we expect this acceleration of technology to continue to complement live auctions in the future, Covid-19 or not.

One mart, for example, has a web camera on each ring that can be accessed via their website so sellers can watch their sale live.

Another uses Facebook Live to stream a video of its sales, while some marts have their catalogue sales online for livestock and machinery.

If you’re selling, mart staff can ring you as soon as the hammer goes down to ask if you’re happy with the price. You may also leave the auctioneer with a minimum price to work off, prior to the sale.

Similarly, buyers may ask a trusted auctioneer or friend attending the mart, to bid on their behalf. Some marts also have online bidding platforms: Buyers log in to the online marketplace, view the ring through a live web camera, and then bid under their profile.

Will autumn sales go ahead?

Yes, the autumn sales will go ahead and we are working hard with national and local governments to develop a roadmap towards this.

The main limiting factor is the 2m distancing requirement. But as a critical infrastructure sector, we are working with authorities to see if we can reduce this to 1m, which would allow a limited number of sellers into marts and increase the number of buyers around the ring. This would mean more safety measures, such as requiring everyone to wear face masks.

Alongside and in addition to these measures, we are investigating how we can build on technology already deployed to enable buying and selling to continue remotely.

This includes more online catalogue sales, where buyers could view pictures and videos about each beast with relevant information such as its date of birth and breeding ahead of the sale, then make an offer online, or bid during the sale via a live bidding platform.

Marts with two rings might use these to allow more buyers onto the premises: Ring two could be linked to ring one via a large screen showing the sale taking place. Buyers in the second ring would be able to bid to an auctioneer in their ring, who would then communicate to the auctioneer in the main ring.

IAAS is also talking to a technology company about app development. Building on an existing app already used in other sectors to keep people safe, the app might electronically sign farmers in and out at marts, send alert reminders to wash hands, and ask people to move out of crowded areas.

What will happen

to island sales?

We are working hard with island marts, local authorities, the Scottish Government, and island health protection boards to address the additional logistical and health and safety challenges of hosting island sales.

There is strong will on all sides to ensure these sales go ahead, but there are significant hurdles to overcome.

Central, is the risk of transporting Covid-19 to island communities, which are isolated and have limited resources to cope with an outbreak.

Secondly, the limited ferry services may have to run at a reduced capacity to ensure on-board distancing.

Tourism is obviously important to many of the islands, but it would be disappointing if a critical infrastructure sector such as ours had to compete for ferry use.

Each island though will have different needs and priorities, and it will be important for us to listen and work with its communities.

If an island sale can’t go ahead, mainland marts will try as hard as they can to sell their stock. This might mean transporting beasts to mainland sales, so we are looking at the associated logistical challenges and safety challenges.

As plans develop, IAAS will work to keep livestock farmers updated in these pages of The Scottish Farmer and on our website at Rest assured that we are working hard with authorities, government and our members to ensure the continuation of business as safely and smoothly as possible.