A true champion of the agricultural industry in Orkney was the view of the judges for the Scottish Agriculture Awards when they dedicated the Unsung Hero Award to John Copland.

There will be few people who have had such an influence on the farming business on the islands as John, who has now fully retired as an auctioneer.

Having dedicated 51 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.

The Scottish Farmer: Orkney at its peak has been home to 30,000 beef cowsOrkney at its peak has been home to 30,000 beef cows

He first ‘retired’ in October, 2015, but was then asked back to work part time, which he did for a further 4 1/2 years, finally packing his gavel away in the last week of February, 2020 – just weeks before Covid 19 lockdown.

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 on March 29, 1969 and after learning a great deal about auctioneering and the industry, he took over 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.

The Scottish Farmer: John believes more of the buyers at the mart are from the North East of ScotlandJohn believes more of the buyers at the mart are from the North East of Scotland

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.

Lockdown put a bit of a spanner in the works when John was made an MBE for his services to agriculture and to the rural community in Scotland.

Originally, he was meant to attend a ceremony at Buckingham Palace in 2020 and then again at Windsor Castle in 2021. Unfortunately, Covid thwarted those plans.

He was finally able to receive his medal at a ceremony at St Magnus Cathedral, in Kirkwall, in 2022, where he was finally presented with his medal by Lord Lieutenant for Orkney, Elaine Grieve.

The Scottish Farmer: The field sizes at the mart have gone down from 30 acres to sixes or sevens so that cattle from one holding can be kept separateThe field sizes at the mart have gone down from 30 acres to sixes or sevens so that cattle from one holding can be kept separate

How important is farming to the Orkney islands?

The livestock census stated that at peak, Orkney was carrying 30,000 beef cows – but it has since dropped to 24,500 and has stabilised at that figure for six years. It would be in the region of 2800 in-calf heifers and just over 2000 dairy cows.

Breeding ewe numbers have increased slightly in recent times to 47,000, with approximately 11,000 females retained for breeding.

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 27 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 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, it’s the Texel that dominates, but Suffolks, Charollais and Lleyns 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 13 dairy farms. 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 sold at one time 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 when the fat and conformation classification in the EUROP scale 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 has been the reduction in the number of local butchers. I remember when there were 19 butchers on the island buying beasts, but 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 subsequently came in.

All field sizes at the mart have gone down from 30 acres to sixes or sevens so that cattle from one holding can be kept in one field instead of mixed with others.

How important is the mart to Orkney’s farmers?

It’s totally vital ... but I might be biased! We all saw during FMD in 2001 that when no mart was open in the UK, trade slumped as there was no reasonable indicator of price. Once auction marts started again, livestock values quickly recovered.

Only thing to add is not only a problem in Orkney but in the rest of the country. Our farming is getting to be very insular as a spouse is away working all day to augment their income. Probably leaving home early and returning late which means the farmer perhaps sees no one all day.

This can pose a danger to those working with livestock or machinery, as well as the impact that loneliness can have on mental health, which is a huge issue in farming anywhere.

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 can be 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?

The lack of succession and labour is one of our biggest worries. 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 that is vital to Orkney’s economy.

Proudest moments?

Getting the new mart built and operational for its opening sale on August 26, 1996. Then, also holding the first auction sale of cattle in the UK following FMD on August 20, 2001.

On personal basis, there’s my marriage to Barbara and, of course having two fine daughters, who have given us the joy of five grand bairns. Also, both Barbara and myself celebrated our Golden Wedding in June last year – and the awards I have received recently are very humbling.

How is retired life?

I might be officially retired, but I still like to attend Orkney Auction Mart sales if at all possible, but if I can't I watch them on line.

I’m still actively involved wae Orkney Rugby Football Club – obviously not playing! – and as we play summer football in Orkney, I attend a lot of games but especially like watching our local Parish Cup games.

As well as being a volunteer at Orkney Family History Society, for 16 years, I was secretary of the Orkney Agricultural Discussion Society. Alison Ritch is now the secretary while for the last four years I have been treasurer.

I will add that a certain Ken Fletcher has twice been our guest and stimulated great debate!

For nearly 40 years, I have done the commentary at the East Mainland Show and have also commentated and/or stewarded at both the Dounby Show and our County Show for more than 50 years. Another familiar voice to Orcadians, David Delday, from BBC Radio Orkney, took over these duties last year, wae me helping out.

I always try to support any meetings which are livestock related and also anything about Orkney history, which is a fascinating subject.

Biggest challenges?

It is still the weather but thankfully livestock number have stabilised. Our internal shipping fleet for our North and South Isles are mostly well past their best and urgently need replacing.

Still about one third of our breeding stock are in our outer isles, so a decent shipping fleet is absolutely vital not only for that livestock but to maintain a viable community is these islands. Contrast this to our external shipping off Orkney to the docks at Aberdeen Harbour, which have the highest standard I’ve witnessed in my 50 odd years of being involved.

A small, local abattoir would also be a boon.

Back to shipping: Probably the most important thing regarding shipping is that "Neutral Time" is retained for the time that the livestock are on the ship taking both Orkney and Shetland animals en route to Aberdeen docks

Treeplanting is not much of a problem in Orkney but I feel for the younger generation 'doon Sooth' trying to purchase good farmland to help feed the nation.

Lack of commitment from Government?

Beef farming is so vitally important to Orkney that I am concerned about the Scottish Government 's lack of commitment. The number of people in Orkney who are employed down-stream fae agriculture is so large – service industries, supply companies, ferry staff ... the list goes on and on and to some extent involves nearly everyone in Orkney.

Although we are led to believe that £15m is to be returned to the agriculture budget this year, the remainder of the £61m which was deferred must be scheduled with dates of return to the budget for Scottish agriculture.

Furthermore, as an industry we need some indication of where any support is to be channelled and we need some direction for the future. The Scottish Government has commissioned SRUC to look into what needs to be done in the Hebrides, Shetland and Orkney. I hope Professor Steven Thomson, along wae SRUC, can guide Government in the correct direction.