The decline of livestock auctions

Cotswold sheep

Cotswold sheep - Credit: Archant

Adam Henson discusses the decline of livestock auctions and the one event left in Gloucestershire that still harks back to the good old days of the livestock markets

The world of the livestock auction can be a bewildering and mysterious experience if you’ve never been to one. It’s a place of nods and winks, people speaking in code and the sales themselves seem impossible to follow. But spend a little time in that unique atmosphere and before long the mists begin the clear.

Just like every profession, farming has its own technical terms and conventions while the men and women at market will be using verbal short cuts to hurry things along. I’ve been going to auctions since I was little, taken along by my Dad at first and then later as a farmer in my own right. They are exciting places full of interesting characters.

At one time there would hardly have been a major town in the Cotswolds region that didn’t have its own livestock market. Today it’s hard to imagine cattle, sheep and pigs being herded through town centre streets or rounded up and penned at local railway stations. But that was the reality for generations. Sadly the country markets slowly declined from about the time of the Second World War, when towns like Newent lost their regular sales. But it’s really been in the last twenty years that large animal auction sites have closed in significant numbers.

Banbury was once Western Europe’s biggest cattle market but it sold its last animal in 1998. Gloucester Market never re-opened after the Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak in 2001 and it wasn’t long before town centre markets in Tetbury, Cirencester and Andoversford shut their gates for the final time. What used to be a weekly event and a social gathering for farming families has been revolutionised by new technology, internet trading and the emergence of larger regional auction centres near major roads and motorways.

But every year there’s one event in the Cotswolds which harks back to the old days and recreates something of that lost community spirit. The Breeds of Gloucestershire sale at the new Cirencester Livestock Centre beside the A419 has become an annual highlight for everyone who appreciates those three very special breeds; Gloucester cattle, Cotswold sheep and Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs. In fact the day is so unusual that it even attracts spectators with no farming connections at all. It has put the spotlight on Britain’s vast livestock varieties so much that in the last few years it has expanded to become a Rare, Native and Traditional Breeds Show and Sale. This year there were even a couple of yaks for sale!

The Cotswold Farm Park has always been a keen supporter of the event and we took a selection of good quality goats, cattle and sheep which created a lot of interest. As the auction has become such a crowd-puller it’s also the venue for the annual shows of the Cotswold Sheep Society and The Gloucestershire Old Spot Pig Breeders’ Club.

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All credit must go to the auctioneers, Voyce Pullin, who run the livestock centre near Cirencester. There is no commercial need to hold the rare breeds sale and in the past they have admitted that they don’t do it for financial profit. But Chris Voyce and Jon Pullin know the importance of staging this unique event and what a boost it gives to the thousands of people who keep, breed and promote our native livestock. Importantly it also brings members of the public to a place they would never normally visit. That’s vital in letting non-farming families know a little about how British agriculture works and it goes some way to breaking down the barriers between our rural and urban communities.

The spectators this year might have had trouble keeping up with the bidding but I guarantee they had a day they will never forget.