It’s been one helluva a year for the food chain, including auction marts – not since foot-and-mouth has the sector come under so much pressure.

That experience, two decades ago now, did, however, spur us on this February as another disease, Covid-19, began to spread on our shores.

Watching the prospect of lockdown get closer, we were acutely aware that our sector relied on groups of people gathering in one place – the one thing that was likely to be restricted. Faced with this, we needed a plan – and quickly – before someone else imposed one on us, or worse, shut down marts completely.

We gathered our members to ask this question – how could we keep people and animals safe, and trade moving? Our primary aim had to be to keep the food chain operating and people fed through the crisis.

On presenting our plan to the Scottish Government, we impressed on them the vital, early role in the food chain that marts play, which is often overlooked. While retailers and other food businesses might generally buy from processors, live auctions are almost always involved before that, particularly with the supply of breeding stock and stores.

At the time, there was talk from some quarters of moving to private sales. Aside from the important issue of maintaining competitive prices, how would the movement of people and stock be tracked, we asked? Marts, we pointed out, already had excellent traceability of animals, and could easily do this with people by signing them in and out.

Shutting marts and leaving stock on farm also presented animal welfare problems. For instance, if late season hoggets were held up when lambing began, farmers could run out of space.

Recognising auctioneers as key workers in the food chain was also something we threw our weight behind. No auctioneers simply meant no live trade, and a rupture in the food chain.

A tense weekend followed our submission to authorities, involving multiple calls with government and other stakeholders to discuss its practicalities and make small alterations.

Communicating the sudden changes to our farming customers was the next big hurdle. And for that, close collaboration with NFUS, NSA and QMS was vital to help spread the message.

Tough decisions were made

Two decisions, in particular, were tough to make. The first was for sellers to ‘drop and go’, rather than stay to watch their animals sold.

We knew this would be difficult for many, but with the number of people restricted around the ring the priority had to be buyers who would keep prices strong and competitive.

The same thinking applied to our second decision – to not admit those aged under 16 to marts. Again, we had to prioritise limited places to working farmers and maintain a clear physical distance, however hard this might have been.

We also made the decision to prevent farmers aged 70 and over from entering our premises, for their own protection from the virus. This was a hard decision and an unpopular one, and on May 12, with the backing of government, we overturned it. Many of those customers were key workers themselves, after all.

At the beginning of restrictions, in spite of the plan, things still felt chaotic at times and the phone continued to ring. Government officials wanted to know how things were going; auctioneers needed to know how to resolve issues within the rules; hauliers and farmers wanted to check logistics.

But gradually, with lots of co-operation, understanding and communication, we all worked our way towards our ‘new normal’ and within a few months, marts, farmers, and others in the chain had largely settled into it.

Technology helped people participate

An important part of this has been marts’ swift investment in digital technology, to enable customers to participate remotely.

Some had already started down that route – several IAAS members had online bidding platforms and web cams to live-stream ring sales.

Covid-19, however, put a rocket under this progress, and accelerated the uptake of technology by several years. Catalogue sales that were being piloted in February, were suddenly given the green light and many marts have now introduced online bidding and cameras.

Although not a replacement for being at a mart in-person, technology has provided a way for self-isolating and shielding individuals to buy and sell still. One farmer has even bought several thousand lambs online this year and has been pleased with the results.

Missing the social side

There have been casualties, though. As anyone who’s been to a mart will know, auctions are as much about the people as the animals – they play a critical role in enabling farmers to connect, share successes and disasters, or simply unwind.

Out on farm visits, auctioneers themselves are often a confidant, sound board, business eye and friend, and for farmers working under pressure in isolated environments, that chat in the yard or kitchen could be the only one they have that day, week, or even month.

And so one of the hardest aspects of Covid-19 has been the loss of mart social life, both around the ring and out on farm. As the end of lambing season approached without the usual summer events to reconnect and decompress at, rural charities warned of a heavy toll on farmer mental health.

The Royal Scottish Agricultural Benevolent Institution (RSABI) stepped up with a powerful campaign to #KeepTalking, which we supported. Many of our young auctioneers,in particular, dedicated time to ringing customers they’d not seen for a while to tackle loneliness.

That danger still exists, particularly as we approach a Christmas where gatherings with loved ones are still limited. Reaching out amongst our community is, therefore, still vital and we urge everyone do place do this.

Strong trade maintained

One fact we should all be proud of, however, is how we’ve worked together – farmers, auctioneers, hauliers, processors, butchers, government, unions and marketing organisations – to keep the food chain operating.

Not only have marts stayed open, but they helped maintain a strong trade. Due to good grass growth and auctioneers’ dedication to getting quality buyers around the ring, both throughput and prices have been strong in 2020.

After an initial spike in prime sheep prices hitting 284p/kg the week of the March lockdown, prices settled into being consistently higher year-on-year from May onwards – up 30-40p/kg on last year from summer through to autumn.

Store steer prices also remained higher than 2019 throughout the second half of the year, with prices for 12-18 month-olds spiking at £1049 per head in September and October, compared to £906 and £936 per head in the same weeks in 2019, respectively.

Without the auction mart system, prices and markets could have gone into free-fall during lockdown. Instead, they continued to provide a reliable and fair system for achieving the best possible price, but with professionalism and traceability too.

Bring on 2021

Looking ahead, the norms as we know them have gone and may never come back. But we’ve found our feet where we are now, and we should all be proud of the enormous work and co-operation that has got us there.

There is, of course, trepidation about the end of the Brexit transition period in December. It is looking increasingly likely that the UK will leave without a deal. What shape that takes exactly is still an unknown – a hugely frustrating and disappointing fact, to say the least.

However, as a nation we’ve been supplying the continent with tens of thousands of lambs for decades. We must remind ourselves that is largely due to the quality of our stock, which will still be sought after.

This year has been tough and the next will certainly have its own challenges, but we’ve proven that if we work together as an industry, we can achieve a lot and remain resilient in the face of enormous challenges.

This, we hope, will see us through the choppy waters of 2021 as the pandemic continues and Brexit reveals itself further.

Key stats:

284p per kg – the highest prime sheep price of the year was reached in the week ending 14 March, as lockdown was announced.

30-40p per kg – average price increase year-on-year for prime sheep July to October

£1049 per head – the highest store steer price of the year reached during two weeks in September and October, compared to £906 and £936 per head in the same weeks in 2019, respectively.