What the future holds for the traditional town livestock market

PUBLISHED: 10:29 25 March 2013 | UPDATED: 21:19 05 April 2013

A busy town livestock mart in June 1955

A busy town livestock mart in June 1955

Adam Henson takes a warm look back at the traditional town livestock market and wonders what the future will hold

Britain is a nation of market towns, or at least it used to be. The centuries-old tradition of coming into town once or twice a week to buy and sell cattle, sheep and pigs is changing fast. At one time there were 800 livestock markets in England and Wales. Today that number is down to about a hundred and many of the ones that remain have relocated to out-of-town sites.

Since mediaeval times market day has been an important occasion which brought activity to the streets and money to the local economy. But for generations of farmers the market wasnt just about doing business. It was also a social event giving often isolated rural families the chance to meet friends, exchange gossip and share their experiences. Across the country the hustle and bustle of the town centre auction has disappeared for good.

So whats caused such a dramatic shift in the farming way of life? Well the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001, when the countryside was effectively in lock down, sealed the fate of many markets. Movement restrictions meant that livestock auctions were closed for a year and for some it was simply impossible to recover their lost trade. For other auctions its been a struggle with old buildings, outdated facilities and difficult access for loading and unloading animals. Its common for those prime town centre sites to be sold for redevelopment as supermarkets, retails parks, cinemas, offices or housing.

But the closure of livestock markets isnt a recent development. Europes largest market, at Banbury in Oxfordshire, closed as long ago as 1998. More than six hundred years of history wasnt enough to save the market which was known as the Stockyard of England. On the day it shut for good, grown men were in tears as they watched the last cattle being sold.

At the time the owners, Midland Marts, explained that delays in securing a new, up-to-date market alongside the M40 made the auction unviable.
So whats replaced the old fashioned town markets? Well the internet now plays an increasingly important role in the sale of livestock along with the trend for meat companies and supermarkets to buy direct from farms. But the markets live on in a new, modern way. That means big out-of-town centres, close to main roads or motorways, with good parking and plenty of loading bays.

People who loved the spirit of the old town centre markets considered it a way of life and will continue to mourn the demise. Farmers who are pressed for time and demand up-to-date facilities say business has been transformed. Perhaps the two sides will never see eye-to-eye. But throughout history farming has had to adapt and it looks certain that fewer, larger markets are here to stay.

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