Last year was undoubtedly one of the most challenging years for Scottish livestock auctioneers since the dark days of foot-and-mouth.

So, the Institute of Auctioneers and Appraisers in Scotland is delighted to report an increase in livestock throughputs at its members' markets in 2020. Overall livestock throughput was up by just short of 10% year-on-year, with total value rising significantly – by 17.5% to more than £556m.

This highlight the critical role auction marts and companies play in delivering transparent market prices using the live ring as their unique price discovery environment. Live rings continue to play a critical role in the economies of rural communities and livestock producers by delivering a market price back to these farmers – with payments that follow soon after.

Using the experience of foot-and-mouth from 20 years ago, auctioneers knew it was critical to keep markets open during Covid-19 and took their rightful place as a vital part of the food chain. This enabled trade through live markets and the auction system to continue, albeit under very different rules to normal and was pivotal for ensuring farmers could still fairly trade their livestock, as well as aiding a buoyant trade that continues today.

It also meant new customers came forward to use the system, as well as offering the opportunity to trade more stock. In a year when Defra figures noted a 3.7% drop in overall sheep production, it was pleasing to see that the number of sheep going through Scottish rings for slaughter actually rose by 10%.

These 2020 throughput figures highlight the value of auction companies: They exist to provide a transparent system for reaching a fair price and have shown that this is worth hundreds of millions of pounds to the Scottish rural economy and its farmers.

Whilst marts offered a high performing transactional environment during 2020, Covid-19 rules meant that mart attendances were limited purely to business interactions. This took away one critical additional element of the Scottish live marketing system – that of social interaction.

Many sales were broadcast online so farmers could keep up with the trade, but we all know it just wasn’t the same as catching up with others at the mart and having a bit of ‘craic’. The opportunity for knowledge exchange and keeping up with policy moves, was also lost.

Yet marts create a great environment for this type of activity, as well as helping to tackle rural isolation, as was recently laid out in the Prince’s Countryside Fund report, 'More than a mart'.

All of this is returning, though. The relaxation of rules means that footfall is increasing again at Scottish marts and as well as buoyant trade, IAAS looks forward to marts continuing to play crucial roles as a rural hubs.

Covid-19 is still very much out there – as I well know, writing this following a couple of really horrible weeks battling the virus myself and knowing my road to recovery is not over yet. Not everyone is taking it seriously, though, and we hear from our members that many customers continue to ignore the request to wear masks at the mart.

We ask you to please keep each other, and mart staff, safe and wear a mask when asked to. Without mart staff, the trade cannot continue.

For IAAS, I would like to highlight the professional approach that members have taken over the last 20 months to ensure a safe trading environment for customers. The institute’s general council would also like to take the opportunity to thank all members and customers for their exceptional work and commitment during a challenging period of time.

We know that the livestock industry is strong when we all stand together, and that the live ring is still the best place to do that.

Nothing beats the live ring for speed and expediency

By Grant Macpherson, managing director Dingwall and Highland Marts

'Last year’s throughput figures are very pleasing to see. Quite simply, if we hadn’t been able to have live marts, there wouldn’t have been the same level of trade.

This year’s summer sales were fantastic too, up to about two weeks ago when increases in fertiliser prices cooled the market. Cattle were going great, with the first couple of sales in September at about £3/kg for smaller calves.

Although the fertiliser situation has dampened things, a lot of cattle have already been sold. Sheep though, are going well, and prime sheep are ahead of last year’s prices, with lambs about £40 higher.

In terms of people at marts, we’re not quite back to where we were pre-Covid-19, with about 50-60% of the normal levels seen at store sales, although bigger sales are attracting more. Even before the pandemic, we live-streamed our sales online and more people are now watching these. Many say they think they’re brilliant.

Nothing beats the live ring for speed and expediency. If there’s no live auction, there’s no competition and it’s very easy for a price to just be decided. A fair and open system is essential for all.'

Chuffed that trust was there to let us sell stock without sellers

By Jim Craig, managing director Craig Wilson, Ayr

'Last year’s throughput figures include all stock – when we take sheep, it was the most fantastic growing season in 2020 and there was great survival rate. So there were more lambs to sell and they didn’t stop growing all year. Those that were still left at the end of the selling season made a super premium.

Covid-19 meant sellers weren’t allowed in around the ring, but I’m very chuffed that the trust was there to let us dispose of stock anyway. Everything we do is built on trust.

This year’s beef cattle prices have been almost the same all year – there has been a consistency to it all, which is very good. This summer we’ve had store sales of about 600 cattle averaging over £1000 apiece. The cost of inputs will put a damper on things, although I think prices will have to stay where they are because of these costs.

At the core, we have managed to continue the business the same throughout the pandemic. Had the market system not been allowed to function during that time, the price of sheep and cattle would have plummeted.'