It’s a Thursday morning, and the auction ring in Hereford is busy. The steep steps that surround the ring have been filling for an hour, and there’s anticipation in the air. Trade this morning has been good, both from commercial buyers and from farmers selling between themselves.
The first few lots were barren cows, and cows with calves, but the next are mostly bulls, varying from a pen of three small Highlands with ginger fringes and handlebar horns to a Charolais the size of a truck.
As each one is let into the circle of straw beneath the auctioneers’ rostrum, the atmosphere shifts a little, takes on a harder charge.
Every week, in every corner of the country, out at the edge of towns and cities, livestock markets still sell animals. Mostly they trade in sheep and cattle, though some run sales for pedigree animals, pigs or poultry. The risk of avian flu means that all live UK bird sales are currently banned.
The majority of animals sold for meat in Britain are sold direct from farms to abattoirs, which then supply the supermarkets, which now control about 90% of the UK meat trade. So markets like these exist to serve trade from farmer to farmer, from farmer to smaller processor, and any shortfall in trade from farmer to abattoir.
In the 1960s, those proportions were reversed. In 1963, 95% of the trade in meat went through the auction markets. At the end of the millennium, two things changed that almost overnight. Traceability legislation introduced in the wake of the BSE outbreak at the end of the 90s, and the total closure of the livestock markets for more than a year during the foot and mouth crisis in 2001 shifted the balance profoundly.
Supermarkets had been looking for an opportunity to bypass the live trade and set their own prices, and used the closure of the markets to approach farmers individually and offer them contracts to supply. Many farmers weighed the options and took the bait: a contracted customer and a guaranteed investor in exchange for a remorseless price.
Now, every week, the supermarkets give the larger abattoirs a shopping list: so many thousand fillet or braising steaks, so many lamb chops or packets of mince. The farms then supply those animals to the abattoirs, which slaughter, package and deliver the meat to the supermarkets.
Yet somehow the livestock markets remain, kept in place through tradition and personal preferences. The survivors have thrived by keeping their character and trading in animals specific to the area.
So, for instance, a dairy farmer in Suffolk who wanted a belted Galloway bull for breeding could either bid in an online livestock auction, or – since a good bull is still a major investment – make the journey to the market in Dumfries or Longtown, the areas where belties first emerged, and where they will still find the widest choice.
Within the markets, some sales – like today’s store cattle auction – are farmer to farmer, while others are more evenly spread. And trade is good: last year, the turnover from British markets topped £2bn.
Fewer animals, better money. Some farmers come here because Hereford specialises in store animals (raised on upland farms but fattened and finished on the lowlands). Some would rather take the possibility of a high bid to the certainty of a low price. And some just like the society.
The markets serve as vital connective tissue. The point is not just to sell or buy but, in a public space, to see what others sell, and how, and for what price. And to participate in a forum for the exchange of other, less tangible commodities: intelligence, gossip, support.
“A lot of people would come in just to look and chat, not to do any business, just to watch and meet people,” says Richard Hyde, managing director at Hereford.
“Farming is terrifically solitary. If people have been trying to calve a cow and you get a dead calf, it’s upsetting. You’ve lost one. You can talk to a sheepdog all you like but he won’t say much back, but you can come here and talk to somebody who might say, ‘Oh, we lost three last week.’ And you suddenly feel better because a trouble shared is a trouble halved.”
The auction starts, business conducted in a loud flat plainsong, a patter so rapid it sounds like a single rolling phrase, culminating, as the hammer comes down, in: “Eight. Hundred. And. Forty Pounds.”
In the pulpit directly above the ring are the auctioneer, the clerk, the market manager and two others taking phone or online bids. The auctioneer speaks mostly to the men at the ringside, divided from each other by perspex screens like booths at a betting shop. The slaughterhouse buyers lean on the rail, nose to nose with the circling cattle, and the movements they make to bid are so small – a twitch of the wrist, a jog of the chin – it takes a while to see anything happening at all.
Being an auctioneer requires very specific qualities: a sharp mind, good timing, cunning, a knack with people, a flourish of theatricality.
“[It’s] a bit like acting,” says Hyde. “You have to be thick-skinned because some of the professional meat men are pretty canny. If you’re in the middle of a good trade, there’s nothing nicer; you’re a foot off the ground. It’s great.
“If you have a bad one, you could happily go down a rat hole. So you couldn’t do this if you didn’t love it. You live and die by your reputation. And people soon vote with their feet. If you’re not doing it properly, they’ll go somewhere else.”
It looks like a lot of money will change hands today. Yesterday’s sheep market probably saw about £500,000 in turnover, and today will be closer to £750,000. The bids could come from anywhere in the room but the auctioneer never falters or consults, knowing all the bidders by name and place. Many are from Welsh farms, tempted over the border by higher prices on the English side.
The three little Highland bulls are knocked down for a few hundred each to a smallholding couple, and the Charolais hurtle through the ring like steers at a rodeo. For a second, the atmosphere is electric, and the illusion that these animals are the same as any other commodity abruptly disintegrates.
One of the bulls – three times the size of the people selling him – gallops out of the ringside exit, hurdling a gate before being blocked to a stop. He hesitates. Behind him, the gates slam shut. The next lot is up, the chant continues, and the market goes on.