FEW people on Orkney have had as strong a connection with the island’s agricultural economy and community than Orkney Auction Mart’s retired auctioneer and manager, John Copland. 
Having dedicated 46 years of his life to firstly Kirkwall Auction Mart and latterly the Orkney Mart, he has been the backbone of some of the island’s biggest changes and improvements to its agricultural industry. 
John was brought up on a beef and sheep farm in Harray and has only applied for one job in his life – as an auctioneer at the mart. His first day at Kirkwall Auction Mart as a youngster was March 29, 1969 and after learning a great deal about auctioneering and the industry, he took over the reigns as manager on January 1, 1994, from Gordon Muir. 
John has not only been involved in the running of the mart in that time but has taken on various committee roles in agricultural and sport organisations, and for more than 40 years has been commentator at both the Dounby and County shows, having been a steward ten years beforehand.
Since the informal presentation which marked his retirement at the mart in October, 2015, John is still a familiar face at the mart on Mondays, whether it be lending a hand to old and new colleagues or catching up with friends. 

How important is the agricultural sector to Orkney?
It is absolutely vital – it’s the engine that drives the economy on Orkney. It’s a huge attribute to our island as the industry employs so many people here. 
The livestock census stated that at peak, Orkney was carrying 30,000 beef cows – but it has since dropped to 26,000 – while there are 2800 in-calf heifers and just over 2000 dairy cows. Ewe numbers have dropped from 55,000 to around 44,000 in the last 10 years. There used to be about 1400 to 1500 holdings, whereas now we’re down to 550 with beef cows. 
A third of Orkney’s beef cows are on the Northern Isles and many of those small islands have nothing but farms on them, so they keep them alive and provide employment for people. They keep the teacher and the doctor on the island and keep the boats running.

Most memorable moments in your working career?
Orkney Auction Mart was the first place in Britain to hold a sale after foot-and-mouth – we were the obvious place to have it. We were the first place to get dairy cows to cross the road, the first place to get fat cattle exported and the first place to get store cattle from farm-to-farm. 
It was a horrific time for the industry and its farmers but was also frustrating for us on Orkney. After the first outbreak of foot-and-mouth in Orkney during December, 1960, both marts on Orkney were back selling cattle within 28 days after the last case of foot-and-mouth was recorded. But, in the 2001 outbreak, we were 300 miles away from the nearest case and it took six months for us to be allowed to get officially going again. 
It was the same with the BSE outbreak in the 1990s as although we were hundreds of miles away from it all, it had a massive financial impact in our farming community. 
Other memorable moments were the amalgamation of the two marts in July, 1993, and then when the mart moved out to its new premises on the outskirts of the town at Hatston 22 years ago. I took over as manager in 1994 from Gordon Muir, so was made project manager for building the new mart. It gives me great satisfaction to have been the manager during that milestone, but the mart has been been very fortunate with the staff it has had over the time I have been here. They’ve all had an input into designing the new mart. 

What changes have you witnessed at the mart over the years and in the farming community as a whole?
The introduction of continental breeds. When I started, most of the cattle here were Aberdeen-Angus and Shorthorn, then came Herefords which were really popular in the 1970s. Before long, the continentals came, and it was the Charolais that are arrived first, then the Limousin and Simmental, and more recently the British Blue and Salers
Sheep have changed, too, as it was nearly all Cheviot ewes when I came to the mart. The majority were put to the Border Leicester tup to produce Half-bred lambs. Nowadays, its the Texel that dominates, but the Suffolk, Charollais and Lleyn are popular too. A lot of people kept Cheviot-Shetland ewes for a while as they were smaller and handier to work with, easier to clip and made good mothers. 
Dairying is completely different to what it once was. When I first came to the mart there were 101 dairy farms producing milk but we’re now down to the late teens of dairy farms now. Most dairy calves are kept on for feeding, whereas before an enormous amount were sold through the ring as young calves. 
We also held pony sales every year and buyers came from as far as Ireland and Paris, but we never sell a pony now. Pigs were sold on a Friday when I started and the back of the building would be full of weaner pigs, but I think we’ve only sold pigs once since we came to the new mart. 
Most of the buyers who come up to Orkney are from Aberdeenshire and Banff and Buchan, but 50 years ago there were buyers coming from the Central Belt, Lothians and further south. A boat used to go to Leith and Aberdeen every Monday with cattle, and the Orcargo ran to Invergordon for a few years.
When it came to selling cattle back then, there were a lot of singles being sold through the ring, whereas the farms are bigger now and you have threes and fours regularly. Sales would go on for ages as there was more lots to sell. At the busiest time of the year, there are even sixes and eights now.
Orkney also led the way on health schemes throughout my lifetime and we did trials to see if Orkney cattle would grade when the fat classification was coming in. That’s when Orkney Meat began. I was heavily involved when the OTM sale ban came in too. Our council provided a cull station and an incinerator for the purpose. 
One of the biggest changes I’ve witnessed is the reduction in the number of local butchers. I remember when there were 19 butchers on the island buying beasts, now we are down to four. Those that are left still buy the best of local cattle and sheep and they help trade enormously. 
The number of local livestock hauliers has decreased, too, as there are only about four left on the mainland, but a lot of famers have their own livestock trailers now. The bigger islands have their own haulage firms but some years ago they used to come in on the cargo vessel MV Islander which could hold 100 cattle from at least three or four islands, sometimes more. Nowadays, the hauliers come in from each of the islands with the stock on their trailers. 
Stewart Trailers built our specialist livestock containers for external shipping, which keeps cattle above and sheep below. 
Since the new mart was built, we’ve not changed much, although we had to make penned areas bigger and fit nipple drinkers to comply with legislation which came in after. All field sizes at the mart have gone down from 30 acres to sixes or sevens so cattle from one holding can be kept in one field instead of mixed with others. 

Biggest struggles for Orcadian farmers?
Besides from the weather, getting straw and hay up to the island, but the Orkney machinery ring help with that. Farmers on the coast are affected by the wind and sea salt, so they have to re-seed fields often. 
The length of the winter is hard going and cattle don’t often get out before May now. 
Farmers don’t have the time now to make a trip to the mart a social outing. I remember when they would spend most of the day at the mart when selling their stock and their wives would come as well. The ringside would be packed, but farmers now come in to see their cattle sold and then they go straight home. 

Future for agriculture?
Brexit is a big fear as farmers are left in the unknown. If the government made their mind up, at least people would be able to plan ahead for the future. 
Biodigesters are a huge worry too, especially for the boys that come up from Aberdeenshire to buy 
store cattle. If they can’t get a hold of basic feed and bedding, they won’t buy. 
The lack of succession and labour is another worry. Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, it was quite common for the farmer’s son to come home and work, but now some farmers are actively discouraging their sons and daughters to come home and work. It’s a real concern for the future of the industry – who will take these farms over?
For the islands, it’s important that we maintain beef cow numbers. If that drifts down there will 
be less to market, therefore fewer ships needed and less employment. We also need our dairy boys too as they are keeping the Orkney Creamery going – another sector which is vital to Orkney’s economy.